The Future of Gaming is Almost Here...Again
This month, Iím going to take a break from anime and manga so that I can focus briefly on the hobby that got me into both of them: video games. The continued success of anime and manga in America is undeniably tied to the game industry. With E3 around the corner (or already here, depending on when youíre reading this), this seems like the best time to wrap up some thoughts that Iíve been having on the state of the industry.
I certainly would not claim to have any greater than average influence on the direction of video games. Sadly, no matter how much Iíd love that sort of power, the destiny of the gaming industry is and always will be determined by gamers.
Oh, and for the record, I know that weíre not supposed to call Microsoftís game machine "the Xbox," instead opting for the grammatically embarrassing "Xbox," but I canít force myself to say "on Xbox." Iím not sure what marketing monkey came up with the officially sanctioned standard of calling Microsoftís machine just "Xbox," instead of "the Xbox," but it sounds like something youíd read in bad email spam. "Win Xbox! Click Here!"
Itís true that people frequently equate the phrase "playing Nintendo" to "playing a video game," but that wasnít due to Nintendoís marketing savvy; that was just the way that the language evolved. English is screwed up enough as it is without PR reps infecting it with more inherently goofy syntax.
There. I have that off my chest. I get sidetracked a little too easily sometimes, and for that, I apologize.
On one of those nifty "making of" videos packaged along with the uber-creepy Doom 3, the CEO of Id Software mentioned that gamers spend thousands of hours playing games; literally days of their lives. Gamers feel (justifiably so) that they should have a say in the development of the games that theyíre going to invest both time and money into.
Thus, Iím writing this not as an enthusiast journalist coming up with this monthís editorial; Iím writing this as a gamer, pure and simple.
Iíll begin with the hardware, delving into specifics for each of the trinity of systems which comprise the current status quo. It makes sense to start with the oldest of the three, which is also the current market leader, the Playstation 2.
The strength of the PS2 is twofold. First of all, Sony is a marketing powerhouse. They didnít do so well with Betamax in the 80ís, with Minidiscs in the 90ís, or with Memory Stick media in the post-2000 era, but they made a winner out of the Playstation brand.
Secondly, Sony did a fantastic job of opening their doors to practically any game publisher who wanted in, granting them a massive library of games spanning every major genre. Role-playing games are especially easy to find on the PS2, making the relative drought of RPGs on other systems quite embarrassing for their competitors.
Backwards compatibility was another key advantage for the PS2, offering gamers access to their beloved PS1 games without having to dust off the older boxes for playing.
While the lines have blurred a little around the exclusivity of Sonyís key series, Sony still has first party titles that will be hard to beat. These include Gran Turismo and the main line of Final Fantasy games. Additionally, Tekken seems stuck on Sony systems, and Sega put many of its most anticipated titles on the PS2, such as Virtua Fighter 4 and Shinobi.
Even with superior ports of Metal Gear Solid on the Game Cube and Xbox, an excellent successor of the Resident Evil franchise on the Gamecube, Grand Theft Auto on the Xbox, and even multiplatform versions of Crash Bandicoot, the PS3 is still the system of choice for many expecting sequels to these games.
With Soul Caliber III heading to the PS2 as an exclusive (even though the Gamecube version of Soul Caliber II outsold the other versions by a hefty number), expecting future installments of the series on the PS3 is not illogical.
Some of the PS2ís weaknesses (from my perspective as a gamer) were strengths for Sony. Despite two previous generations of systems that shipped with 4 controller ports, the PS2 only has two on-system ports. For games with more than 2 players, the pricy multiplayer adapter is an accessory that likely has more people buying it than complaining about it. However, let it be noted that Iím one of those who are complaining about it. Itís bad enough shelling out enough cash for four controllers. I donít want to have to pay extra just for the privilege of using my extra controllers on my gaming system.
The PS2 didnít originally ship with any sort of online support, though newer editions do come shipped with a broadband adapter. For many users, that simply presented another added cost, however.
Currently, the only significant drawback to the Playstation empire would be the dated technology employed by the aging system. I love the forward thinking inclusion of an optical digital port on the back of the system and USB ports on the front, and I also thought it was brilliant to allow DVD playback out of the box: another major selling point for the PS2. However, games are nowhere near as sharp as they are on the Gamecube or Xbox, and while the quality still far surpasses the visuals produced by the first generation of 3D-enabled game systems (the original Playstation, Sega Saturn, 3D0, and the Nintendo 64), it barely outperforms the older (and now defunct) Dreamcast.
Graphics do not necessarily make the game (I still love the original Star Fox - now THOSE are painful 3D graphics), but with the current availability of graphic processing prowess, itís a shame that Final Fantasy XII wonít look as beautiful as it could have in the progressive scan high resolution graphics found on the current generation Xbox.
Seen by many as the clear loser of the current hardware war, Nintendo has been remarkably profitable despite the disfavor it seems to have fallen into with the gaming public. This may be partially due to the surprising success of the Nintendo DS and the continued strength of the Game Boy Advance, but the Gamecube simply isnít as popular as many of us hoped it would be.
Itís hard to argue that Nintendoís games are at fault. They did not provide as many groundbreaking genre-defining titles as they have in years past, but first party offerings on the Gamecube, in general, have been extremely satisfying.
Most noteworthy would be innovative titles such as Pikmin, Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Mario Kart, F-Zero, Paper Mario, Zelda, and my three favorites, Eternal Darkness and the two titles in the Metroid Prime franchise.
However, what Nintendo has in quality and innovation, they completely lack in quantity. So what if ninety percent of their games are some of the greatest games ever made? If they only have 60 titles total, then that doesnít really mean much for the consumer who sees game after game popping out on the PS2 and Xbox. For me, I was happy enough since I have every game system; there was always something I could play while waiting for another Gamecube game. However, itís noteworthy that Nintendo did not release a single game in the month of April this year.
Iím certainly excited about Geist and the upcoming Zelda title, but I canít say that thereís much more that Iím anticipating for the system. Hopefully E3 will change that, but I seriously doubt thereís much more to look forward to on the Gamecube.
Personally, the possibility of a new Zelda or Metroid game is enough to convince me to buy a Revolution, but Iíd like to see a significantly wider variety of games coming out on it. Nintendoís announcement that itís going to be backwards compatible with the Gamecube is a step in the right direction, but given the hints that have been dropped, mainly that itís not going to be anything like what has come before, thereís a scary chance that developers wonít flood the system with titles.
In the eyes of most gamers, success wonít return to Nintendo until they start putting out a comparable quantity of games to their competitors. They also need to learn to compete in terms of online gaming, for even though the Gamecube had available broadband and dial-up modem adaptors, few games support online play.
They did do a few good things, hardware wise. The system, while tiny compared to the Xbox, puts out some impressive graphics; anyone who has played Resident Evil 4 can attest to that. Nintendo also finally managed to make wireless controllers the clear way to go with the Wavebird, and the Game Boy Player made people like me (I donít have a GBA) very happy with the ability to play the fantastic games coming out on the older portable on my TV.
As many gamers know, however, Nintendo measures success differently than merely in terms of market share and popularity. Theyíve been remarkably profitable, despite falling behind gaming newcomer Microsoft and Sonyís sophomore gaming effort. Their plans for the future may not be clear, but thereís a good chance that whatever they do, theyíll do it well enough to keep making money. So long as that means that Shigeru Miyamoto can keep on making games, Iíll consider myself a happy gamer.
In some ways, the success of the Xbox is surprising, and yet, looking at the way Microsoft does business, it is very understandable.
While the giant black and green box hasnít caught up to the PS2 juggernaut and likely never will, the Xbox has earned a significant amount of respect among gamers, at least in America.
With visuals that surpass each of the other three systems, it is the indisputable power leader of the current generation. Itís the only current system that can handle Half Life 2 with any hopes of success, and even if it didnít have the fantastic title from Valve coming later this year, it is clearly the console-based first person shooter fanís dream system. Doom 3 was adapted without a hitch, and thereís no reason to worry about the almost predestined excellence of Half Life 2.
A huge portion of the systemís popularity is due to one game: Halo. The sequel only made gamers hungry for more, so if the next incarnation in the hugely successful series comes out any time soon on the Xbox 360 (as it will most likely be called), it will lend quite a bit of strength to the launch of the new system.
Yet other first party offerings were somewhat weak. Blinx never sold as well as Microsoft wouldíve liked, and Brute Force did not end up being the Halo successor it should have been. Racing games on the Xbox werenít as impressive as Gran Turismo 3 or its sequel, despite the graphical superiority of the Xbox, Polyphony Digital is a seriously talented group of developers.
However, there were other success stories on the system. Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, and Jade Empire are all excellent Western-style adventure role-playing games, and Tecmoís love affair with Microsoft has certainly helped the Xbox by providing the visually stunning Dead or Alive franchise and Ninja Gaiden.
Personally, some of my favorite games of the entire generation are on the Xbox, though they all come from Sega. Jet Set Radio Future, Panzer Dragoon Orta, and Gun Valkyrie were enough to convince me to buy the system when it first came out. With all of the Gamecube games that I've bought because they were made by Nintendo, and all of the RPGs I've bought on the PS2, I still have almost as many Xbox games as I do Gamecube and PS2 games combined. Microsoft must have done something right to convince me to support them more than the other two systems, especially since I only bought the Xbox to play Segaís games on the system.
Inclusion of a hard drive eliminated the need for a memory card, and onboard support for a broadband internet connection gave the Xbox the edge it needed to finally legitimatize online gaming, something that I still have no desire to participate in, despite a three-month trial subscription to Xbox Live. I just downloaded the upgrades and extra content for games that had it and disconnected the cat-5 cable from the system.
If I want to play against a human head to head, Iíll get another Xbox and set up a LAN party. I donít have time to justify paying to play games. Months go by without me being able to touch a game system, and it would kill me to know that I was paying for a subscription and not bothering to use it. However, at least one million people feel differently, the number of subscribers to Xbox Live, and I donít see the numbers dwindling in the future.
Microsoftís biggest weak point is a dearth of support from Japanese developers. They tried to make up for it with the Japanese-styled Sudeki, but the game was a disappointment to many gamers. Japanese games are more than titles that feature scantily clad women with big boobs, but sadly, that was pretty much all that Sudeki had to offer.
Most of Microsoftís Japanese support came from Tecmo and Sega, with a few gifts from Konami here and there in the form of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, Dance Dance Revolution and Karaoke Revolution. Capcom barely touched the Xbox, supporting it only with various compilation releases (Street Fighter and Mega Man), Dino Crisis 3, and Genma Onimusha to name a few examples.
For Microsoft, gaining respect in the Japanese arena is the key to winning the next battle of the gaming industry. It will also make me pretty happy. So far, with announcements from Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, former president of Squaresoft), Nobuo Uematsu (former composer for SquareEnix), Tetsuya Mizuguchi (creator of Rez), and Yoshiki Okamoto (creator of Street Fighter II and Resident Evil) pledging support for Microsoftís next system, the future looks bright for the Xbox 360.
If I can figure out what went right and what went wrong for each of the big three system developers over the past generation, surely Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft know then what they need to do to survive. With the stakes higher than ever for potential profits from the expanding game industry, and the cost of failure increasing just as rapidly, itís going to be an interesting time to be a game fan.
Each company is going to have to come up with some interesting ideas to stay competitive, and that is going to equate into nothing more than good news for gamers. Nintendo has already announced that theyíre going to provide free access to the upcoming gaming network for the Revolution, which will have out-of-box wireless internet capabilities. In the meantime, all signs are pointing to standard wireless controllers for Microsoftís next system, due out later this year.
Not much is known about the Playstation 3, but as the system with the most time to come to market, Sony has the advantage of observing what Nintendo and Microsoft do with their systems before showing off too much. Originally announced as a system to utilize Sonyís Blu-ray media format, now that Sony and Toshiba are attempting to merge the Blu-ray and HD-DVD standards into one, it is unclear as to what media the games will come on. However, this is a mystery for each of the three systems to date.
E3 should change all of that. With the imminent announcement of Nintendoís true successor to the Gameboy Advance, their answer to the PSP, there are other game-related points of interest to be divulged at the annual gaming event.
I can hardly wait.