Friday, August 13, 2010

An adventure ends, another begins.

As you might have noticed, I didn't write on this blog that much lately. The reason, besides the fact that my PC motherboard exploded and it took a bit to get back up to speed with my new PC, is that I'm partly closing the Classy Gamer adventure to begin another.

From now on, I officially join the team of This is my Joystick as a writer, so if you liked this blog, please bookmark their adress and come find my rants there :D

I have been pondering this decision for a long time, since being part of a team will allow me to work at my own pace and focus on interesting content for you to enjoy.

To begin this new adventure, you can enjoy my Hands on the Final Fantasy XIV beta. I hope you'll like it :D

Sunday, July 4, 2010

GT5 and Head Tracking: a small innovation that might prove big

Gran Turismo 5 Cockpit

Lately the media attention is all on "big" innovations like 3D gaming or advanced forms of motion control. When you browse a gaming site chances are that the first article you'll come to is about dark glasses, Kinect, Move, 3DS and similar features that are interesting, but that still didn't fully prove their actual contribution to the quality of gaming.

Today I'm going to talk about an "innovation", that for now didn't yet receive that much media attention, but might prove quite a big deal for gaming in the future: head tracking.

First of all, the term "innovation" needs mandatory quotes, as head tracking isn't completely new both in non-gaming applications (most webcams can do it, even if often in a rather unresponsive way) and in gaming. PC gamers have a few head tracking implements dedicated to gaming like the TrackIR. Unfortunately the high price (around 150 dollars) prevented them to become widespread. Similar tracking features have made brief appearences on consoles as well, thanks to the old EyeToy (and it's evolution, the Playstation Eye), but so far the technology allowed only for a few casual-oriented experiences.

Gran Turismo 5 will be the first core-oriented console game to introduce full fledged head tracking for the control of the point of view inside the cockpit.
Many won't probably realize immediately the importance of this innovation, but as someone that used the TrackIR for several years both on racing and flight simulations, it's hard not to be excited.

What head tracking does is simple and complex at the same time: it detects the position of your head in front of the sensor/camera, and moves the point of view in the game's 3D space accordingly. It seems simple so far, but it needs a further elaboration in order to work well.

Many people think that head tracking is unconfortable, because they envision it as a 1:1 movement, with the need to look away from the screen in order to actually look to your side or behind you. That's not exactly the case.
Gaming related head tracking is normally calibrated so that your movement is magnified. Just turning your head slightly to the right will result in an increased movement on the screen, allowing you to look fully to the side, for instance, without moving your eyes from the screen.
This video about the TrackIR shows very well how it works (and some of the possible future applications of head tracking in gaming).

A racing simulator like Gran Turismo is probably the best candidate to fully exploit the potential of head tracking. Many gamers often have trouble approaching racing games despite the fact that they know how to drive a car in real life. When the experience is transitioned to a TV in their living room, though, they seem to be unable to keep their car on the track or even perform that simple overtake that is a completely natural and common operation every morning while going to work in real life.
In most cases it's a matter of situational awareness. When you drive your car in real life, you unconsciously perform a wide range of movements with your head and eyes that increase your awareness of the space around you. In turn your body naturally reacts to your position in the space and makes driving your car easy.

When you overtake another car, you will instictively keep track of it in your field of view. When you approach a turn you will look towards the inside of the corner in order to let your brain naturally calculate the trajectory your car will follow. Your eye/hand coordination will do the rest of the work for you.
The main weakness of console racing games is that the movement of your point of view has to be controlled via the fingers, something that's almost impossible to do while manouvering since you're already plenty busy steering and shifting. Even if you're better than a piano-playing octopus and somehow manage to look around, control over the point of view is never precise enough.

Basically, no matter how engrossing and detailed the 3D view is, unless you're driving with an external camera (that still disrupts immersion), you will be limited to the flat "world" of your flat screen.
If you tried to drive your car in real life (seriously, do NOT try it, it's actually dangerous) without moving your neck and eyes at all, you would have a similar experience. It would be equally unconfortable.

Head tracking closes, at least in large part, the gap between the situational awareness you have while driving a car in real life and on your console.
It's actually quite funny to notice that, even while playing, most gamers naturally turn their head slightly towards the inside of turns. Obviously nothing happens, but they continue to do it anyway. It's a matter of istinct as your body tries to improve your situational awareness even when the game doesn't allow it.
With head tracking the game will actually respond to that, moving the visual slightly towards the inside of the turn and restoring the eye/hand coordination that happens when you enter and exit a corner in real life.

Overtakes (both overtaking someone and being overtaken), expecially during turns, are the primary cause of crashes during online racing. It's pretty normal. Two competitive dudes racing head to head on a narrow lane with different trajectories that are bound to meet somewhere is a risky affair by itself.
Imagine how much the risk increases if the two dudes are wearing blinders like horses.
That's exactly what happens while racing online without head tracking. You're wearing blinders.

This takes a lot out of the realism of racing online, since turns are, in real life racing, the most common spot in which overtaking happens.

With head tracking gamers will be able to increase their spatial awareness during overtakes tenfolds, and this will probably reduce the amount of crashes during online racing by a lot.
If you played previous racing games online you know very well that crashes are the most frustrating and fun spoiling part of the experience.

This, of course, without even mentioning the increased immersion, the ability to look around freely while driving, that will enable us to finally enjoy fully the beauty of the environment, of the other cars and of the cockpit. The ones wanting total realism could even turn off the hud, since they will have full access to the dials and indicators in front of them.

In the end it's easy to see the potential of this "small" innovation. I would say that for core gamers it could bring more to the table than actual motion control, 3D and all those "big" innovations the use of which seem to be often limited, at least for now.

Racing games aren't obviously the only games that could benefit greatly from advanced head tracking. If you watched the video I linked above about TrackIR, you probably noticed it already. Every game that involves a first person perspective (including first person shooters) would receive an astonishing improvement in situational awareness and immersion.

This is probably the best chance to turn head tracking from a "small" innovation into a "big" one. Gran Turismo 5 will be quite obviously immensely successful, and will very possibly contribute to "publicize" this feature to it's users, turning it from something kind of obscure and needing lenghty explanations like this article, into a commonly understood and appreciated feature.
The technology able to perform this kind of task is included in both Move and Kinect, thing that will possibly contribute to a widespread integration as well.

The PS3 has a little advantage, considering that the Playstation Eye costs, by itself, little over 30 dollars, and gamers that want this feature, but can't care the less about Move, can access it with a small expense. Kinect is a full package, and the entry price of (allegedly) 150 dollars might discourage more than a few (like the same price discourages many PC gamers from trying TrackIR). Also, Microsoft didn't show, so far, any interest in using this kind of functionality.

I was actually pretty disappointed when they shown the little Forza Motorsport demo at E3. It concentrated on the extremely awkward and imprecise operation of steering with a wheel that doesn't exist and didn't show the most natural and advantageous element that kinect could bring to the Forza franchise: head tracking. That's what I define a serious case of skewed priorities.

Anyway, we can definitely look forward to drive in Gran Turismo 5 while able to fully control the viewpoint with the movement of our head. Also, we can definitely hope that it won't be the last example of this very convenient technology in core-oriented console games. It might be a "small" innovation, but it's effects have all the potential to be big, and actually bring a sizable improvement to our gaming experience.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The worst limitation of Xbox Live is starting to surface

Xbox Live is for sure a quite amazing service, and while some might argue (and I might agree, at least partially) that it is a bit overpriced, it's full suit of features makes shelling fifty dollars/euros a year a quite a bit less painful.

The full suit of services and the pay to play business model come, though, with an hidden burden that many don't immediately spot but that seems to be surfacing lately, mostly between developers.
Microsoft maintains complete control over the contents displayed and provided on Xbox live, and no external services may appear on it unless Microsoft approves them, creates a dedicated interface, and ultimately administers them at least in part.
This "total control" policy might be one of the worst flaws of the Xbox Live system and might become more and more prominent in the future.

One of the most shocking events of E3 has been Valve's very own Gabe Newell appearing on the Sony Conference stage to praise the PS3 and to explicitly say that the version of Portal 2 on Sony's console will be the best in the home console market. That's something shocking in itself, and almost unprecedented, as a developer openly telling the press and the public that a game will be better on a console than on it's competitor basically equals to spitting in the face of said competitor, risking to cause serious diplomatic problems.
While Newell has always been very outspoken (mostly against the PS3) it's hard not to see that such an explicit speech might hide serious problems with Microsoft's policies.

For further confirmation, let's read between the lines of what he said: "As an industry, we’re going through a transition from entertainment as a product to entertainment as a service, and because of that, the needs of game players and game developers are evolving. More specifically, it’s not just about chips for rendering pixels, or calculating nav meshes. It’s about giving gamers a complete, social, connected experience. By adopting an open approach to these challenges, the PlayStation 3 is going to excel in this area."

What Newell previously criticized of the PS3 had mainly to do with the complex architecture, that made developing for it (according to him) more difficult. In his E3 speech he didn't really praise the hardware of Sony's console. Quite the contrary, he made it clear that the issue wasn't there.
What he said is basically "Sony is allowing us to bring Steam on the PS3, while Microsoft is not, so Sony is now good, while Microsoft is bad". His issue is not with the hardware or the capabilities of the 360, but with the "total control" policy I described above.

As a further elaboration on this topic yesterday Eurogamer reported that Hiromichi Tanaka (director of Final Fantasy XIV) openly said that what blocked his game from appearing on the Xbox 360 is that "Microsoft (...) wants to have a closed environment for Xbox Live", preventing any form of cross-platform communication and play.
Yoichi Wada (Square Enix' CEO) as well expressed his desire for an industry that allowed developers to "freely design their business models", something that definitely clashes with the closed and controlled business model of Xbox Live.

It's quite evident that the previous experiment between Square-Enix and Microsoft with Final Fantasy XI (that did feature cross platform play and SE's own business model and interface in the form of PlayOnline) didn't go too well and one or both parties aren't willing to repeat it.

While the problem may seem marginal now, it might become more and more important in the future, especially since more parties expressed interest in building their own online services for their major franchises (Activision did for Call of Duty, for instance) and cross-platform gameplay, communication and features may become more important (this is something I always hoped for, myself), resulting in a lower degree of support for Microsoft's console and it's closed online model.

Electronic Arts' recently increased support for the PS3 and explicit serenade to Sony during the E3 conference might be at least partly linked with this issue as well.

Microsoft might be facing a serious dilemma: keeping their "total control" stance might cause them to lose an increasing portion of their third party developer support. This would be a quite crippling blow, given that Microsoft is, between the three first parties, the one that relies on third parties the most.

On the other hand, if they relent with just some of the most influential third parties, this might easily put them on a slippery slope, causing more and more developers to ask for concessions and resulting on a gradual but ultimately unstoppable loss of their "total control" over the Xbox live platform (not to mention a sizable loss of revenue, as more and more games would become available for online gameplay without the need of a gold membership, making it less desirable). It does seem like a lose/lose situation for them.

They might mitigate the problems by buying more developers and increasing their first party support, but it seems pretty much clear that they have an hot potato in their hands at the moment.
Personally, on the side, I still hope to see them relenting, at least for Final Fantasy XIV. As I said several times, a true cross platform approach to the game, available on all major platforms would definitely benefit both the game and the players, regardless of their console/computer of choice. It's definitely time for the segregation of gamers to their platform of choice to come to an end with the creation of a truly globalized online gaming environment.

The ball (or the hot potato) is definitely on Microsoft's field at the moment. We'll have to wait and see what solution they will come up with.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Console War in Manga form

With E3 in full swing, the console war has never been so fierce, with fan(boy)s all over the internet debating and quarreling about who won the show.

The conflict has become so heated that it's making it's appearance more and more often in various instances of the pop culture.
But after all the debating and the arguing, let's step away for a few minutes from the "serious business" to give a look at something a little more light-hearted.

The manga Mel Kano by Towa Oshima, is all about the increasingly popular online relationships between young Japanese people. In this internet-based setting, could the console war really not appear?
The whole chapter 16 (that you can read translated in English here) is about the conflict between the fanboys of two console developers named So*y and Nin*do. I doubt you need me to explain who those slightly censored names refer to.
Being set in Japan, Microsoft has a smaller role, but look towards the end of the chapter for a surprise :D

Give it a look if you want a bit of light-hearted fun after the E3 conferences marathon, or if you want to see a Nunchuk used as an actual Nunchaku. Hopefully you won't see yourself too much reflected in the characters portrayed. But even if you do, it's all in good fun, after all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sony keeps the best for last at E3

Sony's conference started pretty slow, like each and every Sony conference at E3 in the last few years.
They've shown off some quite strong dedication to 3D gaming, but I'm still not persuaded at all about it's real strength. Sure, it may be a nice addition to the real big spenders (TVs and equipment to get the real 3D equipment are indeed a costly affair), but in the end I'm afraid that it won't touch most gamers with a "normal" budget, at least for a while. That, and the glasses.

The presentation of Move surprised me. What surprised me negatively is the absence of a bundle with two controllers. Why? Because some games actually seem to require two controllers for (which is in my opinion the major weak point of the hardware) , so such a bundle should be definitely justified, if not indispensable.

On the other hand, I've been surprised positively by the fact that Sony didn't just show the same launch games that they had already shown previously, but went beyond them, showing new titles. Sorcery is definitely interesting, not only in itself, but for something that I didn't expect to see at this stage of development: The response of the move was not just very precise, it was also apparently completely lag-free, something that I decidedly can't say about anything shown for Kinect or even in previous showings of the Move itself.

If such instantaneous and precise response will really translate into all Move-enabled games, the promise of meaningful core-oriented motion gaming might really be fulfilled. For someone like me, that's a bit impaired in aiming precisely with a joypad, this might really be a big deal.

Something that many people missed, partly because not everyone is as interested in marketing as I am, and partly because of what happened right after, is the partnership between Playstation Move and Coca Cola. While the average user may not be very interested, unless he happens to be one of the winners of the contest, this is quite a big deal from a commercial point of view. This kind of co-marketing can easily help the initial sales of Move soar above the competition, given the extreme popularity of the Coca Cola soft drinks everywhere in the world. By securing this partnership Sony managed to grant Move and the PS3 an enormous amount of visibility through the holiday season.

When people were starting to wonder about the lack of big announcement, the man that can only be defined as one of the biggest strokes of genius to ever hit a marketer's mind appeared on stage: just as Kevin Butler single-handedly saved the whole PS3 marketing, his funny appearance and speech kicked the Sony conference into high gear.

Something that personally pleased me quite a bit is that Sony decided not to move on from the PSP just yet. On the contrary, they shown that they're ready to increase and improve their support to their handheld console to face the challenge of the 3DS. The upcoming games library definitely looks great, and Sony seems to be catching a glimpse of what causes their handheld to be so popular in Japan and quite a bit less in the rest of the world: there are a metric ton of great PSP games in Japan, and just a fraction get imported in the west.
The montage was pretty heavy on Japanese games, with some great examples like Persona 3 Portable and Valkyria Chronicles 2. We can only hope that Sony will push on the accelerator, bringing many more to the west.
With a gaming library comparable to it's Japanese one, the PSP would really soar.

The announcement of a growing partnership with Electronic Arts didn't surprise me much. It seems that the HD gaming world is moving towards a bipolar future, with Microsoft allied with Activision and Sony allied with Electronic Arts.
Signals of this have been clearly visible in the air for quite a while, and seem to have been made more concrete quite solidly during this E3.
This might actually bode well for Sony, because while EA's raw power might be slightly smaller than Activision's, they worked very hard lately in stepping up their game. Quality-wise I can easily say that EA's games tend to be quite a lot superior to Activision's.

The collector's edition of Dead Space 2 is quite a great result of this "alliance". The HD version of Dead Space Extraction with move support is a strong selling point to the fans of the franchise that don't have a wii and missed it previously (and considering the abysmal sales, it's pretty obvious that there are many of them out there).

After the presentation of the partnership with EA, something that I would have never expected to see in this life happened: Gabe Newell appeared on stage to announce Portal 2 on the PS3 and to say that thanks to the Steam features that will appear on Sony's console, it'll be the best console version of the game.
Considering that Newell has been the most vocal and even "nasty" critic of the PS3, this is quite an U-turn for Valve, and something that seems to be promising for the future relationship between the PS3 and the primarily PC developer. Gabe looked quite nervous as he talked on stage. I would have too, if I was in the process of eating back my words in front of the whole world.

The subsequent showing of the trailer of Final Fantasy XIV was really beautiful, getting me even more excited for this title (even if I'll definitely play it on PC). Final Fantasy XI was a very solid game, but it had a flaw: it's soundtrack was quite far from the usual Final Fantasy themes.
Hearing something extremely similar to the theme of Final Fantasy VI playing during this latest trailer definitely struck a chord in my heart. You can already see the trailer at the official Final Fantasy XIV website.
To be honest, though, I still hope to see the game published on 360 as well. A big, varied community is exactly what games like this one need, and complete cross-platform gameplay across PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 could turn Final Fantasy XIV from a great games into a real AAA success with a sizable playerbase that will keep it running for a long time.

The biggest piece of news for me was (I doubt this will surprise my most regular readers) the announcement of Gran Turismo 5. On November the 2nd the world will end... Ahem... I mean that one of the most anticipated games of this generation will hit the shelves.
The trailer shown during the conference was probably the most spectacular between all the trailers shown at E-3. Words as "photo-realistic" or "lifelike" don't even start to describe the beauty of GT5. If it'll play as great as it looks, it'll be a surefire game of the year for anyone but the biggest Microsoft or Nintendo fanboys.

But it didn't end there, as Sony had two more surprises up it's sleeve. Infamous 2 looked really nice and hopefully will expand on the very promising beginning that was the first Infamous.

Finally, the new Twisted Metal was announced, and boy, it looks really fun. It was the perfect conclusion for a conference that started relatively slow but grew up in a great crescendo to an explosive finale.

The message of this conference is clear, and Sony fulfilled their promise. Their new attention to motion control not only won't shift the focus away from core gaming, but it will very possibly enrich it. The effect was exactly opposite to that of the Microsoft keynote, and the many that will feel betrayed by the overly casual approach of Kinect will have an easy time finding a new comfy home in the Sony camp.

Between Sony and Nintendo the confrontation is much closer. Nintendo shown a very strong line-up, supported by the 3DS, but their themes and genres were excessively monotonous. Fans of the old and abused Nintendo Franchises and/or of platformers with a lot of focus on cartoonish/childish graphics might see Nintendo scraping a close victory.

Sony, on the other hand, shown that they have quite a lot to look forward to for every kind of gamer. No matter if you love platformers or you prefer shooters or racing games, no matter if you like light-hearted games or deep and complex masterpieces. Sony has some great content in store for you. The same can't be said for Nintendo, that ended up catering only to their own usual crowd.

That's why, in the end, as far as I'm concerned, Sony comes out of E3 as the winner, with Nintendo as a close runner up. Microsoft is the true loser, with a quite shameful performance despite all the money they wasted hiring Cirque du Soleil, all their glitz and the pretty lame attempt to bribe the press with hundreds of free consoles.

Of course and as usual, your mileage may vary. As a closure to this long post, you can enjoy the spectacular GT5 trailer after the cut.

Warhammer 40,000 Dark Millenium Online trailer unleashed

THQ introduced at E3 the first trailer of the Warhammer 40,000 MMORPG scheduled for released in 2010, dubbed "Dark Millenium Online".

The trailer, made entirely of gameplay footage, shows a lot of bolter action, with space marines, Nurgle demons, chaos space marines, heretics and Orks.
I have to admit that my Warhammr 40k fan heart jumped a bit, expecially at the sight of the massive warhound titan stomping around, that seems to hint that the game will have a truly epic scale.

We'll have to wait for further info, but I have a very good feeling about this. In the meanwhile you can enjoy the full trailer after the cut.

New Star Fox to be released on the 3DS?

Nintendo's conference went pretty much as planned with a LOT of platformers (seriously, Nintendo needs to variate it's game portfolio a little bit. The 80% of the games shown at their conference were platformers), and a long and interesting part about the 3DS.
I'll let others give you the complete rundown, mostly due to my natural hostility towards platform games, but I can definitely say that this conference was much less boring and much more enjoyable than Microsoft's, with quite a lot of meat to the fire even for core gamers.

There was, though, a quite interesting detail that many might have missed: during the trailer that was supposed to represent the 3D capabilities of the 3DS, Nintendo shown quite clearly the image of an Arwing (the starfighter used by the Star Fox team) coming out of the 3DS screen.

I would say it's pretty much the official confirmation that a new Star Fox game is indeed incoming, and that it will be released on the 3DS.
This is sure to please the many Nintendo fans that were a bit disgruntled by the lack of any new title in the Star Fox franchise, while other franchises (Mario on top of them all) were receiving too much attentiontion and rehashes.

We'll have to wait for an official announcement, but yeah, Star Fox seems to be coming back, and it probably will in full glasses-less 3D.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Xbox 360 E3 press conference fails to impress

The lights just went out on the Xbox 360 E3 presser, and the worries sparked by the showy but thin on content Kinect presentation seem to have been confirmed. Actually even beyond what I expected.

I did indeed anticipate a quite sizable spotlight on Kinect, I didn't predict that actual core games would have received that little stage time.

The presser started slow with the announcement of a timed exclusive on the DLC contents for the Call of Duty franchise for the next three years. Nice for some I guess, but I doubt anyone was really there to see a Microsoft executive gloating about how they managed just another time to screw over everyone playing games on competing consoles.

Then Hideo Kojima appeared on stage. Everyone was bracing for a big announcement, an exclusive Metal Gear Solid game for xbox 360? A brand new game we never saw?
Kojima started speaking and basically went like this: "Hello everyone, I'm very happy to be here, let me introduce my underling. Bye!" And he disappeared, leaving me with my jaw dropping out of surprise as another Konami dude got on stage and started showing Metal Gear Raising.

The game looked pretty decent, but nothing groundbreaking was shown. There are a couple good news, though.
The first one is that it doesn't seem to be a Kinect title, like many feared, meaning that we will probably be able to play it with a normal controller, without waving our hands in the air like idiots. Kinect wasn't mentioned at all, and no Kinect logo appeared with the trailer.
The second good news is that there seem to be no timed Xbox 360 exclusive on the game, debunking a theory that seemed to be quite popular lately.
Hopefully everyone will be able to play the game at the same time, whatever their console of choice.

Finally they moved on to the exclusives: in rapid succession we saw Gears of War 3, Fable 3, Halo Reach and a new game from Crytek codenamed "Kingdoms".
"Kingdoms" was really the only new core-oriented exclusive announced by Microsoft at this E3 presser. There was absolutely nothing else, and what's worse, the short trailer presented actually shown nothing of the game.

Then they moved on to Kinect, showing how it'll let you speak and wave your hands around to control your xbox 360 (quite often to perform operations that are much more confortable and quick to be done with a single keypress), a Kinect-related deal to show sports on xbox live, and how Microsoft seems to think that they invented the webcam. "Look! It's following you around as you move!". My three-years old logitech webcam does that as well.

Finally they shown the Kinect-specific games line-up. And that's when things went totally as predicted. ALL of them are wii-like family/casual oriented showelware that has absolutely nothing to offer to core gamers.
The presentation was horribly cheesy and obviously staged (the little kid showing the Eyepet clone was really a sad show), and overally they failed to attract much else than big, gaping yawns.
The only one that seems to have some decent potential is the Star Wars games we already saw yesterday, but it won't be a launch title (it will be released in 2011) and it really doesn't seem much more than an on-rails third person shooter/brawler. Playing with swords with any kind of immersion really requires something in your hand, and Kinect lacks exactly that, between all things.

Following that Dan Greenwalt came on stage to drop the usual dribble about how his game is the best of the world, and to introduce what seems to be an expansion for Forza Motorsport 3 coming 2011 (it still had the Forza 3 logo, so I doubt it's a new game, also the visuals were the same as Forza 3). It featured a nifty mode in which you could walk around and inside a static Ferrari, which is nice car porn, but has really little to do with gaming. Then proceeded to show-off the game played with motion controls in what could be defined as nothing else than a pathetic slideshow with no real racing, as the demonstrator passed a long line of almost static cars on a road.

As a fan of racing games, I found it extremely underwhelming. First of all, no self respecting gamer will ever chose to control something requiring as much precision as a "simulative" racing game with just his hands held in front of himself.
It's obviously less precise than a controller or an actual wheel, having nothing in your hands when driving is anti-immersive, and holding your arms in front of you like that for long periods of time is going to cause plenty muscular fatigue.
There's nothing you need less, while doing something challenging, then your muscles starting to hurt and lose precision and quickness of motion.

Finally, the game shown absolutely no head tracking capabilities while driving, thing that, given that it's one of the features that will be included in Gran Turismo 5 and that it's the only actually useful application of motion control to racing games, proved to be really disappointing.

Finally, what's obviously Microsoft's idea for a big surprise was dropped. The fabled Xbox 360 slim really exists, in a nice imitation of Sony's announcement of the PS3 Slim. The problem is that the announcement didn't really come with what actually made the PS3 slim into a big success. The price drop.
The only thing similar to that is a discounted pricetag that will be applied to older xbox models that will be phased out, until they're gone.
If you are one of the few that uses a wireless network to play online (bad and laggy idea, but some can't draw a cable from their router to the console), then the built-in wireless will be a nice addition, and the removal of one of the worst xbox 360 hidden costs.
Otherwise, the new slimmed-down console offers really nothing interesting, besides a slightly weirder design that kind of reminds the Alienware style.

The whole show proved to be so underwhelming that Don Mattrick had to actually encourage the audience to applaud at the end, while announcing that every single one of them would be gifted a free Xbox 360 slim. Such an open act of press bribery is already quite frown-worthy, but seeing it fail was actually even more sad.

In the end the whole press conference left me really unimpressed and actually worried about the future of gaming. Microsoft has grown to be one of the biggest "powers" in the gaming market, but their idea of the "Biggest gaming conference in the world" (as proudly announced on the Xbox.com website) seems to be only one new exclusive game dedicated to core gamers and a whole bunch of yawn-inducing shovelware that would be better placed on the shelves dedicated to the Wii.

I somehow expected it to be bad, but this bad? Not really. Maybe if you love (watching) sports you'll be more excited than me, but in the end Kojima's appearence seemed to me to be the very symbol of this E3's Xbox 360 presser: "Nothing to see here, bye bye".

Raising an eyebrow at Kinect


The much anticipated (not really) project Nat... ahem, Kinect presentation is now behind our backs, and there are a few conclusions to be drawn.

First of all, it seems that Nat... ahem, Kinect's target is largely unbalanced towards the casual gamer. It's not unexpected, as Microsoft seems to be aiming more at putting a finger in Nintendo's pie than into finding a real way to improve gaming across the board.
The presentation was basically a very spectacular set of smoke and mirrors, purposedly aimed at wooing the uneducated masses, with little or no attraction towards the actual core gamer (besides the Star Wars game, that will probably suffer from the lack of... you know... an handle to grip on, something that lightsabers tend to actually have).

The gaming press reacted predictably, with open criticism, scorn and not very veiled sarcasm, in what's probably one of the most overwhelmingly negative press coverage seen in the gaming market during the last few years. Reactions in gaming-related forums and chatrooms (not to mention local gaming shops) has been similar.
Besides a few exceptions, pretty much everyone seems to be laughing in Microsoft's face today.

It's to be said that the initial reaction to the Nintendo Rev... ahem, Wii, was partly similar, with a sizable part of the hardcore gaming press and enhusiasts pretty much mocking the weird remote-waggling thing that Nintendo was showing off at the time.
After that, though, the device got offered to the casual playerbase and it resulted in the humongous sales we see every month when the charts are released.

There are, though, quite a few significant differences. When Nintendo announced the Wii they used no smoke and mirrors, no showing-off of artistry. They weighed their whole marketing stunt on their games. They got journalists to play with the Wii over and over, and let the actual "fun" speak for itself (more or less the same approach that Sony is using with the Move).
On the other hand Microsoft seems to be trying to give journalists and enthusiasts as little "hands-on" time and solid performance data as possible. A video even demonstrated that the latest gameplay footage was actually pre-recorded to improve the perceived reaction time and performance.
Also, the Wii had a sizable price advantage over it's competitors, which helped quite a lot in making the system desirable to the "mom that wants to buy a console for her kid, and will just look for the one that costs less".

On the other hand, for the moment Kinect seems to involve a sizable amount of smoke and mirrors, with little being shown of the games and mostly in a very much controlled environment, while it seems unlikely that it'll have any pricing advantage over the competition. Quite the contrary.

Of course, despite this initial hiccup, Nat... ahem, Kinect, can still be a success, even a major one. It will all depend on Microsoft's ability to charm the masses with their marketing stunts (and Microsoft's marketing power isn't something to be dismissed easily). The Cirque du Soleil one is just the beginning.
It remains to be seen, though, if marketing stunts alone will be enough to persuade the biggest part of the casual market, that probably already owns a Wii, to fork the money for a new console that ultimately doesn't offer much more than HD graphics on top of what the Wii already does (and the graphics of the Kinect games we saw before was really nothing to call home for).
Graphics haven't been a strong deciding factor so far in the success of the Wii over it's competituon. Why should they become one now?

Most hardcore gamers, that are normally the ones that care the most about graphical shine, seems, so far, largely unimpressed, if not downright hostile to the idea of Kinect, even more so after yesterday's presentation.

Not everything is said and done, though. Microsoft still has a presentation left (in a couple hours), and they might as well surprise us by lifting the smoke and mirrors and showing us a decent line-up (even just a few would suffice) of quality-driven core oriented games with Kinect control in an environment more appropriate to a core audience, without charming but completely useless Cirque du Soleil dancers crowding the stage. It's a solid possibility, and we'll soon see if it'll be realized or if we can write off Kinect as something that's "just not for us".

There's just one final factor that makes me wonder. If Kinect is aimed to the uneducated masses, why was the name changed? When aim for the mass market, the very first rule is to give your product a recognizable, easy to remember, easy to pronunce name (it's really basic marketing). "Natal" fit that rule perfectly.
Kinect, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. It's hard to pronunce, hard to remember. Some would define it downright cacophonic, with it's horrible clashing of consonants.
Even journalists, with all their press kits, are already starting to misspell it as "Kinetc" or even "Kinetic" (personally, I misspelled the name six time through the article, and had to correct it). This might prove to be an hindrance to the mass appeal of the product.

As usual, we will have to stand by and see, but so far, I have to say that I'm unimpressed. Microsoft's Smoke & Mirrors approach, the lack of an actual controller to grip on, the somewhat unreasonable space requirements and my repulsion for the idea of looking unbelievably stupid while I play, seem to label Kinetc as something I'll pass on.
We'll have to see if Microsoft will be able to change my mind later today or before November comes, and more importantly, we'll have to see if they'll be able to sway the masses, whose opinion counts a lot more than mine.
I have some solid doubts even about that. What about you?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gran Turismo 5: will the customization options surprise us?


GT5 Customization
Picture uploaded by Abriael
Today sony released a new trailer for Gran Turismo 5. Quite obviously, most people just noticed that it didn't include a release date (it's always amazing how shallow gaming journalism can be, isn't it?).
I wonder if someone was that silly to really expect an announcement on that before E3...
Anyway, there was another quite interesting detail, besides some really amazing suspension rebound effects that by themselves made the trailer quite spectacular to the eyes of a racing fan like me.

At the end of the trailer, in the usual "it only does everything" features scroll, the following was displayed: "950+ Cars, Online Play, Career Mode, Drifting, Rally, Damage, Customization".

Basically nothing has been said so far about the car customization options included in the game, and such options have never really been a big selling point of the Gran Turismo franchise, especially visual customization, that has been basically absent since Gran Turismo 2.

It's quite surprising, then, that Sony would advertise "customization", as one of the main features of the game, even if in a very subtle way with the features scroll.
This leads me to wonder if GT5's customization options will be one of the big surprises Sony will deliver at their E3 presentation, maybe even some nifty visual customization features.
It wouldn't be that farfetched, after all.
Sony seems to have acquired a taste for user created content, shown quite clearly in releases like Little Big Planet or Mod Nation Racers, and that kind of options normally add a lot especially to online gameplay, that's seemingly another big focus of Gran Turismo 5.

That's why I wouldn't be that surprised to see Yamauchi-san on the E3 stage showing off some nifty visual customization options included in the game.
Granted, it may never happen, and for now it's just my speculation based on a blue word scrolling at light speed in a trailer, but come on, a game with Gran Turismo 5's graphics and richness in content paired with Forza 3's visual customization?
I don't know many racing fans that wouldn't drool on that.

You can see the trailer after the cut: