next-gen


Worldwide release of the 4th and allegedly final installment of the venerable (and at times mystifyingly bizarre) “Metal Gear Solid” series is set for June 12. If there is ever to be a game release that can rival the likes of that green giant, Master Chief, Kojima’s mega opus MGS4 is it. From what little we actually know — aside from screenshots, video snippets, and interviews — the game certainly looks and sounds AAA. Indeed, like what MGS2 did for its predecessor, MGS4 stands to define the power and potential of the PlayStation 3 in the eyes of undecided consumers. Sony hopes MGS4 can also serve as THE game to finally convert reluctant PS2 gen holdouts (such as myself — though admittedly, it’s the school loans and lack of free time that’ll hold me back for at least another year or more — even these entries exist solely based on my unwavering passion for this industry and the spirited creativity it can stand for).

This, however, is a question worth some conversation. Sony seems to have made up its mind already — well, actually, it isn’t as if there is much of a selection from which the company can choose from. Outside MGS4, PS3’s next round of major hits aren’t due for awhile (Final Fantasy 13, GT5 – I mean the real sequel, Ratchet Future 2, to name a few). Unfortunately, the rest, while sounding awesome — GTA4, Soul Calibur 4, Resident Evil 5 — are platform agnostic, meaning they’ll probably be great games but not ones Sony can tout as distinguishing markers of its platform.

So this brings us back to MGS4 and Sony’s intention to make it the face of its console, at least for the Summer and quite possible for the rest of the year. There is the US bundle, and today word came that Sony would even release a limited edition silver bundle. While bundles have become commonplace, this is still somewhat of a big deal. Why? Well, when was the last time Sony bundled software with the PlayStation 2? Or even with the original PSOne? Sure, there were retailer bundles — but official Sony ones? If you’re having trouble remembering any, that’s because there were none. And that’s mostly because Sony didn’t have to. We all know who won those generations.

The story is very different today. In North America, the PS3 remains in third place, and the sight of number one is (if not already gone) fading fast. While the 360 has lost a lot of its momentum, the console’s headstart in building a viable online community remains a factor Sony hasn’t quite cracked on its platform. Whatever grand promises HOME still holds are also fizzling out as more and more demo-testers discover its limitations, bugs, and, well, mediocrity. May be, deep down, Phil Harrison knew that.

The story isn’t all doom and gloom. The future of the PS3 is promising but whether MGS4 can be a title that turns the charts around might be too much even for a beautifully rendered Solid Snake to handle. The Metal Gear series was undeniably at its peak during the PSOne years. The two-disc wonder grabbed the attention of gamers and Press alike as it merged together gameplay with a truly cinematic and compelling storyline. MGS2 — despite its sales — probably deflated the hype. With its borderline insane ending and “deep” dialogue, Kojima essentially took the series away from the casual gamer, deciding instead to stick with his hardcore devotees. Though I too scratched my head more than a couple times finishing MGS2, my respect for Kojima only grew with MGS2; artists sometimes do things people don’t understand; taking those risks without fear of commercial consequences takes guts — even if you’re Hideo Kojima.

MGS2 played a huge roll in helping the PS2 run away from the competition, but that success came at a cost. The attention to MGS2 brought out the critics, many of whom to which gaming was a casual affair — and most of them panned MGS2’s storyline. And they were right in some respect, piecing together roadkill might be easier than deciphering MGS2.

But nowhere has the impact of MGS2 been felt greater than on the series’ sales. Compared to MGS2 and the original PSOne release, MGS3 was — as Konami put it — “moderately successful.” In other words, the game never met sales expectations. It’s an unfortunate outcome, given MGS3’s storyline was almost entirely coherent. It was, I suppose, what consumers wanted in MGS2 but never got.

MGS3 still went on to sell millions, but only after a price cut and a visit to the clearance bin. There’s something almost unfitting about seeing a Kojima game sitting alongside Backyard Wrestling 2 for $9.99 at Best Buy. I think it says a couple things: One, MGS2 drove away a lot of people, and two, those people never really came back.

So what does all that mean? It means MGS4 — for all the attention Sony is giving it — may not be the system seller it believes it to be. And I won’t be at all surprised when MGS4 sells well, but ultimately, doesn’t drive new system sales. Sure, there will be a bump, but that bump probably won’t be anything to write home about. Factor in the reality that Metal Gear has always been more of a Western attraction (i.e the Japanese gamers frankly don’t care much about it) and you suddenly realize that the real potential for MGS4 to move systems is actually pretty average, if not low.

In other words, Sony is probably more likely to move systems by packing Sly, Jak, or Ratchet. Snake isn’t going to do much more than convert hardcores who waited. Yeah, those gamers who probably have a 360 sitting at home, too. Ultimately, bundling MGS4 — at best –will probably get Sony to finally get those hardcore players who complained about the PS3’s price tag and library. But that too is a tough sell — because the fact is the PS3’s library still isn’t much to Toyota! about.

So is that all MGS4 can do for the brand on which it was born? Probably. Expect some amazing sales figures but system sales probably will fall off real quick. In an economy like this one, outside of the hardcores, not many are going to jump on a $400+ console for one AAA game.

In a way, the end result of MGS4’s role on the PS3 will be much like the game’s protagonist. In a trailer, an aged Solid Snake says, “War has changed. Our time has ended. Our war is over.” At the time, some writers suggested this was a sly way for Sony to tell its competition it would reign supreme yet again. However, now several years later, after nightmare delays, laser shortages, the Wii, that phrase means something very different.

Kutaragi is gone. Nintendo is #1. Dante swings on the 360. And so does Rockstar and pretty much everyone else. MGS4 may ultimately serve to remind everyone that Sony’s time as king is over and that the traditional console war waged over the last few generations is no longer the same kind of war. Now it’s about digital downloads, online functionality, and casual gaming contraptions (Scene It anyone?). In that sense, Solid Snake’s adieu on the PS3 marks more of an end than a beginning, a way to say thanks, good-bye and good luck, though with an understanding that down the road, should Metal Gear ever emerge again on any console, it might well be on more than just the one bearing the Sony logo. **

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Covers of gaming magazines are riddled with stories proclaiming the supposed demise of the PlayStation 3. This past year, nearly every major publication (EGM, GamePro) and even the niche ones (Hardcore Gamer, Play) are surmising over the potentially self-destructive road Sony has taken with its newest console iteration. Whether the topic relates to the forced implementation of the Blu-ray format or the lack of new software, there certainly appears to be no end to the death knell conversation surrounding the PS3. To be fair, a due amount of the criticism is justified; Sony has — for better or worse — made this generation’s console more about its bid to win a format war than about producing new games. And, as is common with market leaders in this industry, it has turned an almost Nintendo-like stance on its third party developers — preferring to have its brand demand respect rather than reaching out and assisting in deciphering what some publishers are declaring the most complex programming system since the Sega Saturn.

But these types of follies are by no means anything new, and although the Nintendo Wii has trounced the PS3 in the first round of competition, it’s hard to say whether this trend will continue — in fact, I think more signs are beginning to point towards Sony retaking a substantial piece of the pie in the next twelve to eighteen months. What are some of these key signs? Read on, gamers:

Post-Halo Syndrome: No one doubts that Halo 3 will sell systems but whether the third outing by Master Chief will bring in hordes of new 360 players remains a BIG question mark. As sequels go, there are probably no safer bets than Halo 3 but with the sheer flood of FPS games and look-alikes on the market, sales for Bungie’s core title might not meet the bombshell expectations some analysts are projecting. Most consumers do equate XBOX with Halo, but will new consumers be willing to pay over $300 just to play it? Microsoft certainly needs them to. The 360, despite a steady stream of purchasers, is not particularly “hot” amongst gamers — and the release periods both before and after Halo look like a casual/moderate gamer’s nightmare: that is, a desert of nothing. While we’ll see what Microsoft has up its sleeve at mini-E3, thus far 360 fanboys have to be disappointed by the lack of capitalization by Microsoft on Sony’s missteps. And sadly, there isn’t much to get excited about, either. While a few third party games have defected to 360, games like ‘Beautiful Katamari’ probably isn’t going to save the console from the reaper in countries such as Japan.

Third Party Loyalty: Yes, Kutaragi is out, but that doesn’t mean Sony’s lost its allegiance with core Japanese developers. While I do think MGS4 will eventually hit the 360, I think we’ll see something similar to the delayed release of MGS2 Substance. There is no way Final Fantasy XIII will show up on the 360 — though if the franchise does defect, expect to see more sidebar titles pop up on the Wii/DS first. SquEnix is too tied to Sony’s castle to move this title to its direct competitor. This doesn’t mean SquEnix won’t release 360 games, however. I expect new titles such as The Last Remnant to be cross-platform releases; it’s a business, after all, and SquEnix needs all the help it can get to establish a name for itself outside FF and Dragon Quest. While I realize a lot of gamers get all up in arms about the PS3 losing exclusives, I think many are asking the wrong question. It’s not so much about losing 3rd party exclusivity as it is how well do the PS3 and 360 stack up when the 3rd parties are no longer an impact?

First/Second Parties Wrap Up: Sony’s core teams are FINALLY bringing out some of the games that will help define its system in the eyes of consumers. Two of the biggest games coming soon are HEAVENLY SWORD and insomniac’s UNCHARTED. Both not only look stellar, but also potentially different enough in style and direction to cast the PS3 as a console of choice. Sony’s knack for the cinematic should be lightyears ahead of Microsoft’s and I suspect we’ll get a nice view of that when these two gems ship. I admit though that while UNCHARTED will probably play like a dream, I still have some doubts over Ninja Theory’s gameplay design for HEAVENLY SWORD — though even it merely mimics God of War’s schema and innovates on nothing more than graphics, Sony still has a heart-stopper heroine it can flaunt in front of its core male demo.

Whether Sony’s first parties are better than 360’s is arguable — though I’d say PS3’s are probably better. Microsoft seems to be loaded with critical guns but not commerical ones. Lionhead and Silicon Knights are no Sucker Punch and Insomniac; and Rareware is nothing more than a shadow of its former self. Sure, 360 has Bungie but after Halo, Bungie might be a one-trick pony.

Price Gap Probably Gone: CEO Stringer made it clear that the PS3 needs a price refinement and CEOs don’t go around saying things like that unless they’re serious about doing it. Although sales of the PS3 are slow, a huge barrier to entry right now is the price tag. When PS3 can hit the $400 price mark, it’s likely to sell thousands more than the 360 per month. If the price difference becomes marginal — something I suspect will happen in the next two to four months, Microsoft might be surprised to find how quickly the ratio of 360 to PS3 units flip over. Will the PS3 be the market leader by the end of 2008 — probably not; I think the Wii will keep its lead for one more year. However, by the end of 2009, PS3 should have surpassed the Wii as the console of choice for gamers.

 

There was a time when Sega was relevant; you might recall its final glory days as a console manufacturer (Long Live the Dreamcast!). Since that time, however, Sega’s transformation to a third party publisher has been anything but smooth. Its once venerable Sonic series is now the punchline to many industry jokes, and exactly how many iterations of Virtua Tennis must be made before even we are sick and tired or Maria Sharapova?

This unpromising backdrop might explain why Sega chose to make and release a rather distasteful viral video. It depicts the kidnapping of a Sega developer. In refusing to concede a supposedly huge April announcement (yet another doubtful megaton), he is “tortured” by his captors. First, in the form of a leg waxing, followed by an ear clipping, and then to James Blunt’s overplayed “Beautiful”. During each sequence, you can hear the captive screaming in “pain”.

The eerie likeness to numerous terrorist videos is only the tip of what makes these videos off the mark. As an industry that continues to fight media/legislators who claim it actively exploits violence for profit, it’s hard to see how this kind of advertising doesn’t legitimize their positions.

 

With its relevancy in question, and its icon-status diminished, Sega is clearly after ‘shock’ value. And if its goal is to simply get written about, then I suppose this blog entry (which I presume will be read by its agency folk) — along with others that will probably come — achieves that goal. But how much value is there in creating conversation that, in my perspective, seems thus far resoundingly negative?

 

And how sad is it that Sega — a brand gamers once associated with greatness on even keel with Nintendo — must resort to this kind of advertising to even get written about?

 

There was a time, not too long ago, when Sega relied on the quality of its games to garner interest and hype over its announcements. Virtua Fighter 5 notwithstanding, most of its recent gen offerings have been either uninspired (Nightshade) or, in a word, terrible (Sonic Riders). One wishes Sega went back to what it once did very well: creative vision that encapsulated gamer minds and took us to worlds unseen (NiGhts, Panzer Dragoon Saga).

 

Whatever announcement this viral video is tied to, it shows an incredible level of desparation. And based on many user comments I’ve read, it also shows how out-of-touch Sega is with the rest of the industry and, unfortunately, the rest of the world.

 

Sega, take note: You can’t make yourself relevant by continuuing to plug poorly made games. Go back and give us the next JSRF — and let the gamers find their way back to you.

 

And please, go back to making “funny” videos. If you think this is funny, then you have an agency that apparently idolizes John Melendez.

PS3 and the Wii

You have to appreciate great journalism — and few newspapers dish out consistent quality like the New York Times (the Washington Post is probably the closest, and don’t even think about mentioning the WSJ. That paper and NYT don’t belong in the same sentence). The NYT provided a piece on the State of Videogames the other day, and it’s a nice read — much to the delight of Wii fans, Sony continues to absorb a barrage of negative publicity, and the situations made worse by idiotic comments from Sony Reps that either make no sense or are SO deliberately PR spin that they’d make Tony Snow proud. GameSpot kindly posted these comments from the NYT — without the rest of the article, they are akin to when Atari Reps insisted floundering Jaguar sales were not a reflection of apathy but of consumers wanting to hold out for 2-3 more killer apps. And some of us who use it as a paperweight are still waiting on those killer apps.

To gamers, the fact that Wii outsold the PS3 during the holidays is not news — after all, Sony barely got enough machines out the door after several production delays. Nintendo, on the other hand, didn’t run into that problem — and I think that’s primarily because the Wii’s infrastructure is indeed GameCube’s on steroids. I don’t mean that as a dent to the Wii (so fanboys stay at bay!); come on, it’s a technological fact based on the specs and many 3rd party developers have expressed the same sentiment.

So should Sony be running scared about now? The answer? “Not yet.” Sony is right to say this is a marathon, not a sprint. However, a little anxiety is healthy, and may help take Sony’s hubris down a few notches. While economists always try to predict markets, the fact is markets are unpredictable, and that alone is why Sony should be a little worried about recent trends. While the past suggest console penetration ranks can be altered, that window has gotten smaller and smaller each generation. Sony’s troubled leap from the gate might have done enough damage to keep PS3 down for a long time, and given most consumers don’t spend $600 on consoles until the Holidays, that means Sony will have an even harder time moving hardware while 360 and Wii continue to sell and grow their libraries. Sometimes, being an “impulse buy,” as Sony describes the Wii, isn’t such a bad thing.

This scenario might be improved if demand for PS3 was still high, but that craze has clearly come and gone. PS3s are now sitting on most store shelves for weeks before they are claimed. In fact, stores in my area have them in ample supply — and no one is buying them. Of course, a system is only as good as its games, so Sony is hoping exclusives will show PS3’s muscle in the coming months. Unfortunately, there is cause to worry in this department, too.

How “good” (and I mean visually for now) games will be and for which system they release for depend in large part on penetration. All these rumors about MGS4 going 360 and Ubi Soft dropping Assassin’s exclusivity are happening because PS3’s penetration numbers are falling well short. It doesn’t help that PS3’s development costs a whole bunch more than 360’s, and that the software backing the system is notoriously complicated. You know it’s pretty bad when Hideo Kojima goes on record to say the PS3 architecture is outright confusing.

Exclusive titles drive console purchases — it’s what has kept Nintendo in the game and the reason why Microsoft wines and dines Japanese developers on a weekly basis. Without killer exclusives, differentiation in the console market is hard. Perhaps in this sense, Sony is right — its real competitor is the 360, not the Wii (Though I’d argue that either way, it loses ground). As more publishers/developers decide to include 360 versions, what will happen is graphics downscaling; PS2’s huge penetration meant Xbox ports looked decidedly less stellar (since the games were being made first for PS2 and then for the Xbox). Poetic justice may exist because the 360 looks like it’ll be returning the favor this generation. If Microsoft keeps a penetration lead, there won’t be enough to make consumers fork over the extra $200-$300. Most gamers will settle for a 360 and see the few games they don’t get as a wash since Microsoft has its own killer exclusives. Sony’s decision to ignore the Wii might prove fatal in this scenario. Like what Ross Perot did to Bush, Sr. and what Nadir did to Gore, Wii might swing in to steal Japan’s market, which will compel developers there to hop on board Nintendo’s development train. That’ll mean PS3’s edge in the Japanese market (the one place 360 can’t break into) could be gone or at least diminished. With fewer games coming out of Japan, more pressure would be applied to Sony’s 1st party teams. That wouldn’t be ideal. Sony would be draining more funds to make more games — and that’ll be a losing proposition. Look back at PSX and PS2 — all of Sony’s best games came from 3rd party exclusives. While Sony has made some headway with its own titles, the fact is SCEA, SCEJ, and 989 can’t compete alongside HAL, Bungie, or Lionhead.

What this would mean is the end of Sony’s grand strategy …

The purpose of the PS3 is essentially twofold: (1) populate CELL and (2) win a format licensing war — let’s be frank about this. Sure, there will be DMC4, Heavenly Sword, and FF13 — but that’s not Stinger’s ultimate point now, is it? The reason Ps3 is so expensive is because the Co. spent billions in R&D to build those two elements. The PS3 is the frontline in making sure Sony not only recoups the investments, but profits many times over. Without enough PS3s in households, the CELL will remain expensive to produce, and the same will hold true for Blu-Ray discs and players. If Sony has to cut prices deeper to move PS3s then it might win the format war, but the time it’ll take to get back in black will be seriously lengthened, not to mention the jaunting reality that disc-based delivery might very well be gone next-gen, which would render Blu-Rays defunct right when Sony breaks even. Now you know why Stinger’s supporters are walking around like they have ants in their pants.

The irony in all this is that Sony’s consumer electronics and movie divisions are now as rosy as ever. What once were seen as the laggers dragging down the whole Sony empire are now what save Sony’s earnings report. The PlayStation division, on the other hand, is now looking more and more like the reason why Sony’s profit margins will be squeezed for years to come.

ESPN NFL 2K5 (XBOX)

In a welcome move, Take Two Interactive announced it is bringing back the 2K football series to the console-verse with All Pro Football 2K8. The game is slated to appear on “next-gen” consoles only, which is an interesting move given the established userbase of current-gen systems. While resource might be a factor, it would have been nice to see Take Two bring the game to the PS2 at a minimum. Then again, the company might be doing this to blow the socks off Madden’s thus far less compelling visual presentation. The last two Maddens on 360 have offered very few upgrades, and no matter how many polygons EA boasts, there is something missing in these Maddens that have got hardcore fans scratching thier heads.

Anyone with a general Economics background, however, isn’t surprised by the lack of innovation from EA. After spending millions to secure the NFL and ESPN licenses, it’s only natural EA seek to recoup those losses through minimizing its game labor. Otherwise, the move would make little financial sense. Still, exclusivity has not stopped other companies from pumping out successful football games. Midway’s reenvisioned Blitz was a surprise — if you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend playing it — though football purists should be warned of its sometimes obscene and offensive content.

While it remains unclear exactly WHO will be in Take Two’s gridiron return, what is clear is Visual Concept’s brilliance in engineering exciting gameplay and equally compelling presentation. Personally, 2K did ESPN a far better presentation than what EA has done with it. The 2K series really imagined televised gameplay, and NFL 2k5 shined because of it. If Visual Concepts can deliver that same level of polish in 2K8, it’s very possible EA could see declines in its next Madden game. Review scores for recent Madden releases have started to fall (finally!), and it’s a good sign that writers on EGM and even sellout IGN are starting to derail EA’s lack of improvements with the title.

Here’s hoping Pro Football 2K8 delivers Madden the BIG wake-up call I’m sure NFL 2K6 would have done had EA not muscled away the NFL license.