Console wars

GamePro reports NPD sales data:

Console June sales
Wii 666,700
PS3 405,500
Xbox 360 219,800
PS2 188,800

Of note, these are sales to end users, not number of consoles shipped; Microsoft prefers to cite the latter.

The Wii is now the #1 console in the US by installed base. So it seems as though as predicted, the Xbox 360’s best days could be behind it.

Once Sony got their act together and shipped a bundle with the rumble controller packaged along with the console, sales took off. When the 80GB PS3 with rumble controller replaces the current 40GB package, expect sales to rise again. It won’t take long to erase the lead in installed base Microsoft has.

This week, people are making a big thing about the announcement that Final Fantasy XIII is going to be cross-platform, appearing on the 360 as well as the PS3–but only in the US, as nobody in Japan has a 360.

I don’t see the Final Fantasy announcement as all that big of a deal, when you look at all the former Xbox exclusives that are now on the PS3 or will be soon.

  • Saints Row was the Xbox’s supposed GTA-killer, and Saints Row 2 is going to be on PS3.
  • BioShock was the 360’s highest rated game of 2007 on Metacritic. It’s now coming to PS3, with "graphical improvements".
  • Half-Life ‘s developer Valve was always a staunch Microsoft supporter, with Half-Life 2 an Xbox exclusive–but The Orange Box came out for PS3 earlier this year. (I’ve picked up a copy–FPSs aren’t really my thing, but I want to play Portal.)
  • Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion made it onto the PS3.
  • Dead or Alive 4 is being ported, and it’s rumored that the sequel may be PS3 exclusive.
  • Ridge Racer 6 was Xbox 360 only, Ridge Racer 7 switched to PS3 only.
  • Full Auto was Xbox 360 only, Full Auto 2 is on PS3.

So looking at the high profile well-reviewed Xbox exclusives, that leaves Command and Conquer, Project Gotham Racing, Mass Effect, Gears of War, and of course Halo. (Dead Rising is heading to the Wii, along with Beautiful Katamari.) It’s a good job Microsoft bought so many game companies, or they would hardly have any exclusives left at this point.

So the video game industry will avoid Microsoft domination for another generation. I think this is a good thing.

PS3 + GTA4

Last week, Sony finally released a PlayStation 3 bundle that actually shipped with the rumble controller included, rather than expecting people to spend an extra $60 to get one. The bundle also comes with <cite><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000FQ2D5E?ie=UTF8&tag=a0ef8-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B000FQ2D5E”>Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots</a></cite>, the new iteration of one of my favorite games.

This new MGS4 bundle promptly sold out everywhere online. So on Saturday, while rothko was helping to run a local election, I figured I’d try a few stores to see if anyone had one in stock.

I was pretty pessimistic, expecting another Wii/Wii Fit scenario, based on the lack of online availability. However, my first call (to Best Buy) turned up a small cache of units. I wolfed a breakfast burrito and dashed over there. Sure enough, they had 8 new PS3 bundles, so I grabbed one.

However, while I like Metal Gear Solid, it wasn’t the game I had been waiting months to play. So I picked up a copy of <cite><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000HKP88C?ie=UTF8&tag=a0ef8-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B000HKP88C”>Grand Theft Auto IV</a></cite> as well.

I already had an HDMI switchbox and suitable cables, purchased from the excellent and awesomely cheap monoprice.com. I was a good husband and got everything installed tidily in the TV stand, no trailing cables. I even cleaned and dusted. Then I settled down for some quality time.

My early impressions of GTA IV are that they’ve pretty much gone in the direction I wanted: greater realism, more interesting locations, and less empty space. Motorcycles are less unbalancing now; it’s harder to corner, and if you hit something, rather than just getting back on and continuing, you tend to tumble like a rag doll across 20 meters of asphalt and cripple yourself. It’s also possible to drive a car into a solid object fast enough that you fly through the windshield in a shower of glass and end up bleeding in the street.

The violence level has been toned down as well. Rather than ridiculous overkill missions with rocket launchers, the initial focus is on small-scale crime. You, a handgun, and a baseball bat. The story is better too; the protagonist gradually gets drawn into crime, reluctantly.

Haven’t tried multiplayer yet.

In defense of GTA, part 1: A short history of video games

You’ve probably noticed that a new Grand Theft Auto game is out, GTA IV. As usual, the release of a new GTA has resulted in a new round of articles criticizing (or outright excoriating) the game.

I’m a big fan of GTA. I’ve played every 3D GTA game from start to finish. As such, I feel I can provide an informed perspective on the game series. I see a number of annoying misconceptions and deceptions repeated time and time again, the most infamous of which is the claim that the game rewards you for killing prostitutes.

I’d like to explain why I continue to play every GTA game released. But before I can do that, I need to talk a bit about the history of video games, so that I can explain exactly why GTA was (and is still) so groundbreaking.

(In the text that follows, please excuse any lapses in chronology; my focus here is on general trends in game design, rather than the minutiae of which games were released when.)

The first wave of video games: the arcade

Video games are a comparatively new medium. While a few experimental games were created as early as the 1950s, it was in the 1960s that the first recognizable video games began to appear on university computer systems. In the early 1970s, these primitive games began to appear in amusement arcades.

Early games mostly belonged in one of two categories: sports games and shooting games. The first amusement arcade game, PONG, was an example of the former. It presented a stripped-down approximation of a familiar competitive sport, in this case tennis. Other games attempted to simulate baseball, hurdles, and other sports events.

Perhaps the earliest example of a shooting game in the arcades was Space Wars, an adaptation of a mainframe game. It allowed two players to maneuver spacecraft on a vector graphics screen, and attempt to destroy each other with missile fire.

In 1978, Taito launched Space Invaders, which introduced two vital changes to the shooting game formula. Firstly, it was a single player game, so players no longer needed to find a friend of similar ability in order to enjoy play. Obviously this was a relief to the kinds of people who played video games, but it was the second innovation that really changed gaming: Space Invaders presented the player with an enemy whose forces were apparently overwhelming.

It was a massive hit, and set the pattern for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of video games. Sometimes the enemies were Japanese aircraft, sometimes egg-laying aliens, sometimes undersea creatures; sometimes the screen scrolled horizontally or vertically, or even diagonally. However, the basic situation was always the same: large numbers of enemies were invading for no adequately explored reason, and as they moved around the screen you attempted to kill as many of them as possible. The genre became known as the shoot-em-up. While it soon became formulaic, and is no longer popular, for a while almost every other video game seemed to be a shoot-em-up.

In the 1980s, a few new primeval video game formulae were invented. The game Scramble turned the tables, making the human player the aggressor in an invasion attempt; this idea was repeated later in games like Zaxxon and R-Type. Mazes became popular, in games such as Pac-Man and Berzerk. Pac-Man also introduced many people to the game mechanic of evading enemies rather than destroying them, a formula also used in Q*Bert and Crazy Climber. Driving games made an appearance, from purist Formula One simulations to avoid-the-enemy variations with cars in mazes. Eventually true 3D graphics began to appear, with games such as Battlezone, a commercial game which was adapted into a military tank battle simulator.

One thing that was clear on entering any 1980s video arcade was that there was a tremendous focus on shooting things, and not a great deal of story-telling going on. Partly this was because of technological limitations, but mostly it was because the purpose of an arcade video game was to extract as many coins from customers as possible. Games therefore attempted to give the most intense experience possible, so that even a five minute gameplay session could feel exhausting. The easiest way to achieve this kind of intensity was with lots of violence, often enhanced with pulsating sound and visuals. Eighties games such as Robotron: 2084 and Defender still rate amongst the most intense video game experiences devised.

The second wave: console games

While arcade games battled to fit more and more killing on screen, video games began to undergo a parallel evolution in the home. In 1977, the Atari 2600 introduced the idea of a video game console which could play any number of different games, loaded onto it from cartridges. Prior to this innovation, home video game consoles came with a fixed set of games built in.

Cartridge-based console gaming lowered the investment needed to put a game into commercial production, and reduced the amount of money the customer had to risk to try a new game. At the same time, companies like Atari were making incredible amounts of money, so game designers were allowed to experiment with games that would have been unsuitable for arcades. And with no requirement to keep game sessions short in order to pull money from the player’s pockets, games could become longer.

So it was that another video game genre began to become popular: the adventure. Often modeled on pen and paper role-playing games, adventure games offered players the chance to take part in a comparatively lengthy quest, which often had some sort of narrative purpose behind it. For the first time, games began to explore why the protagonist was risking his life and why he was being attacked. Furthermore, almost all adventures had an ending in which the player could actually win the game.

It wasn’t long before some adventure games began to offer players true choice, with multiple ways to “win”–for example, by rescuing the princess, defeating the dragon, or recovering the treasure.

The third wave: home computers

During the home computer boom of the 1980s, the price of game distribution fell further, as software for home computers could be duplicated on regular audio cassettes. In addition, home computer programming languages put the means of game development in the hands of millions of people. This led to another explosion in the degree of complexity found in video games.

As well as graphical adventure games, there were adventures where the gameplay was represented purely as text. One of the earliest was called simply “Adventure”, and was developed in the 1970s on business computers which lacked any kind of graphical output. It was played at universities and colleges all over the world, before being adapted to run on home computers.

Text adventures were able to use the power of the written word to represent situations that the primitive computer graphics of the time were not suited to. In addition, because the player could type complex commands, it was possible to affect the game world in more sophisticated ways than was feasible with the four-way joystick with single fire button that was common at the time.

Hence for a number of years, text adventures led the way in showing what video games could be capable of. Most text adventures avoided violence entirely, encouraging players to find other ways to make progress within the game universe. Characters other than the player-controlled protagonist were commonplace, and they soon began to exhibit their own programmed personalities and act according to their own distinct goals. For the first time, games began to feel comparable in complexity to more established artistic genres; a text adventure game could feel like you were actually in a novel.

As the worlds modeled in the games became larger and more complex, many players began to find that exploring and mapping the world was an enjoyable and entertaining activity in and of itself. Games began to be advertised on the basis of how large they were and how many different locations they featured.

The death of the arcades and the rise of 3D

Meanwhile, the shoot-everything approach of arcade video games had run into a dead end, and the industry had collapsed. There were lean times for consoles too, as the limitations of their low priced hardware prevented their games from competing with those found on increasingly powerful home computers.

By the late 1980s, high resolution color graphics were commonplace on most home computer owners’ machines. This made it feasible to use full 3D color graphics in video games. One influential early 3D game was Wolfenstein 3D, which challenged the player to lead a heavily armed soldier into a maze-like Nazi encampment.

While there had been 3D action and adventure games on home computers as early as 1980, Wolfenstein 3D achieved notoriety for the level of violence depicted. The player was encouraged to kill hundreds of German soldiers, who were seen falling to the ground in a spray of blood. In addition, killing the “boss” at the end of a level resulted in an instant replay of his death. Although the game was controversial (and arguably tasteless), its high speed 3D graphics were groundbreaking, and it won many awards. It also kick-started the video game genre known as the first person shooter (FPS), still incredibly popular amongst Windows gamers.

The makers of Wolf 3D went on to make Doom, which ramped up the complexity of the 3D world. Rather than limiting the player to wandering in 4 fixed directions in a grid-like world, Doom provided the illusion of a true 3D world in which you could move in any direction at any angle. Doom also featured exploration-based puzzles involving locked doors and hidden switches. More controversially, it ramped up the violence level. It was another hit.

Before long, video game developers tried taking the kind of free-roaming 3D graphics popularized by Doom, and using them in story-based action-adventure games. The ultimate aim was to make a "cinematic" game; one that would feel like you were inside a movie.

By the mid 1990s, it was possible to model objects using polygons, and draw them at high speed on screen. This led to games in which both the world and the objects in it were truly three-dimensional. The launch of the Sony PlayStation boosted video game console power, enabling similar feats of programming in console games. But while game programmers could now draw and animate pretty much anything, the complexity of the resulting game worlds now became a major problem.

Next, in part 2: the complexity problem.

The imminent death of the Xbox 360

When the Xbox 360 came out, it was portrayed as something everyone wanted, the amazing new console that was selling out everywhere. Yet the next week, when I walked into Costco they had a pallet piled high with the things.

When the Wii was launched, it became the console that was really selling out everywhere. But by then, Microsoft had moved on to their new story, that the Xbox 360 was the biggest selling next-gen console.

Except that it isn’t.

If you read the small print on Microsoft’s announced sales figures, you find that they’re not actually lying; but they count a console as sold as soon as it leaves the factory. Sony and Nintendo do the same, but there’s a big difference in how that figure relates to the number of consoles actually sold to gamers.

If you walk into any electronics store, you’ll probably see several dozen Xbox 360s piled up in the main store. You won’t see anything like as many PS3s, and you probably still won’t see a Wii. Think about that. Also, think about the fact that electronics stores don’t actually like to pile expensive items up in the middle of the store inside their boxes; it usually indicates that they’ve got even more piles of the things in storage out back, and have run out of space and are trying desperately to shift them. Have you ever seen a big pile of digital cameras in their boxes in Best Buy? A stack of dozens of Denon receivers in Circuit City? Nope. But you’ve probably seen a big stack of $30 Chinese DVD players on clearance…

Someone has put these observations together with some hard sales data. It turns out that the channel is absolutely bloated with unwanted Xbox 360s. Not only that, the 360 was almost matched for sales by the PS2, except during Halo release month, which is clearly visible as a statistical anomaly. When the release of a single game skews your sales that much, that can’t be a good thing either, can it?

In fact, Xbox 360 sales peaked in 2006. And with the PS3 now having a solid library of good games, I don’t see it improving. Also interesting is the analysis of how the 360 is actually more expensive than the PS3, once you factor in the add-ons to make it equivalent in capability.

Format wars

The New York Times reports that most people have decided to sit out the HD format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

I’m one of them. I remember DCC vs MiniDisc. MiniDisc won, if by ‘won’ you mean ‘lingered for a few years longer’. I also remember SACD vs DVD-Audio. Both of those lost, in that even people who have DVD players capable of playing DVD Audio (like me) typically don’t bother to hook them up to support it (like me). I saw an SACD player in someone’s house at Christmas, but it was being used as a CD player.

As the guy from Sony admits, the improvement from DVD to HD is pretty marginal unless your TV is 40″ or greater. This seems to match my conclusions from comparing 1080i OTA HDTV to upscaled DVD on our TV.

Then there are the downsides. The most obvious being the sluggish performance. For Blu-ray, typically it takes 30 seconds after hitting the power button before the disc tray opens; 30 more seconds after inserting the disc before you see menus. Of course, that’s the optimistic case, it can be much worse. Assuming it actually works at all. And to think I get impatient waiting 10 seconds for my DVD player.

Then there’s region encoding. I like being able to buy UK TV shows and movies legally and watch them, and I’m not prepared to go back to having a disc player that’s limited to US releases. So I’m not buying Blu-ray until region-free players become available.

Then there’s ripping video. Sure, it’s kinda specialized, but as iPods and portable video players and video-capable phones become more commonplace, it’s increasingly appealing. I did consider ripping some TV shows to watch on my BlackBerry on the plane this Christmas.

So as far as I’m concerned, wake me when the war is over and I can get a player that plays the winning format, in all regions, for under $300. Until then, I’m not interested. Even if I get a PS3, I can’t see myself buying any Blu-ray discs.