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So amidst the hours and hours of studying for my law school exams, I felt I’d take a short breather and share my thoughts on all the commotion abuzz over Wall Street chatter that tech innovator (or as I prefer to call them, “slick re-packager”) Apple might be eying a takeover of Electronic Arts (“EA”).  Michael Pachter went on record to call the notion, “retarded,” which is not exactly the way I would have put it, but at least he’s using layman terms.  Of course, all of this is just chatter, but that hasn’t stopped blogs such as Joystiq and Kotaku from reporting on it.  A brief perusal of the comments and messages shows most readers are either in the “WTF?” or “no way!” camp.  Granted, the very thought of Apple running EA doesn’t necessarily cross most gamers’ minds; but then again, no one thought Final Fantasy maker Square Enix could successfully marry its franchise with Walt Disney, either.

Yeah, that analogy isn’t exactly fair (or entirely relevant).  The point is an Apple-EA merger (or takeover) isn’t exactly as wild or as far-fetched an idea as many think.  The focus of the Internet community seems to be on the dreaded notion of Apple “exclusivizing” EA properties, such as Madden or Tiger Woods Golf on the iPhone or on iTunes.  Or, that Apple will force EA to waste resources on MAC game development.  Much of this misses the point, however.  Apple didn’t get where it is today by making unreasonable decisions.  Steve Jobs is an avid supporter of dropping barriers to access (remember the whole DRM speech from 2007?), and he sits with the Disney board of directors, and let’s face it, few companies have embraced the digital generation as well as Disney has (its recent hulu.com stake is just one example of how Disney understands that digital worlds are not primed for content control freaks).  Mr. Jobs undeniably plays a strong influence in encouraging these sorts of decisions.  I doubt any Apple-led EA would seriously alter how EA distributes or targets its content to gamers.  Madden will still be across consoles.  So then what would an Apple-led EA likely do or mean to the industry?  Here are a couple possibilities:

1)  A more casual EA

And by “casual,” I don’t mean EA’s (terribly misguided and nonchalant) approach to marketing new franchises (Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, I’m looking at you two).  Apple is likely to encourage EA to develop games better tuned for mass appeal, similar to how Activision succeeded (and is now “sequeling” to death) in the Guitar Heroes games.  EA may actually put more beef (and not just pep talk) behind its Wii-dedicated teams to deliver more titles similar to Boom Blox.  Along with this approach, an Apple-led EA would develop more flash-oriented titles for iTunes, iPhone, and (yes) for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.    Would this mean more portable games over console titles?  That answer is not entirely clear.  Given the audience composition of the 360 and PS3, we’d probably see fewer EA titles outside of the traditional sports franchises.  Apple may prefer EA focus new franchises towards the Wii and DS(i).

EA wouldn’t leave console gaming behind.  Apple knows Madden and EA Sports is the bread and butter of the company.  Forcing such titles to appear only on Apple platforms would just be nonsensical, if not short of stupid.  It would be like buying a multi-billion dollar company just to run it into the ground, or an $80,000 Ferrari just to send it over a cliff, and –well—even Jobs has to answer to his shareholders.  Multi-platform support would very much continue.  We might see a nice blending between iTunes and Madden (think of all those music downloads!) or even extras built into the iPhone version (but none of these are likely to be serious alterations to the current model.  In other words, an Apple-led EA isn’t going to result in marquee franchises jumping ship.  What it more than likely will mean is more games targeted to moderate and casual gamers.  But honestly, that’s a winning strategy for EA and every other gaming company out there, so even if Apple didn’t takeover EA, this is a shift we should be seeing across the landscape.  The big difference with an Apple-led EA?  My guess is better navigation and more targeted, efficient management.

2)  Following the Casual, for a Change

Why is there a shift happening in the industry?  Or, as famed God of War creator David Jaffe mentioned on GameTrailers.com, why should the industry perhaps rethink its dedication to the hardcore?  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where these sentiments are coming from.

There are dozens of rumors about Microsoft and Sony introducing motion-sensing controllers (which is a rather sad and ultimately pointless endeavor, BTW – that could be a whole post by itself), and major publishers this generation are ALL suffering because PS3 and 360 adoption penetration isn’t making up for development costs and other major investments.  The economy has something to do with it; but this goes deeper than the economy (besides, gaming has fared well during this recession).

Both Sony and Microsoft squarely aimed their consoles at the hardcore; this despite the cold-hard truth that the hardcore is the minority (and possibly a shrinking one), stronger in voice only because they’re so loud (and yeah, boisterously obnoxious).  The decision to cater to that crowd served well in previous generations.  It’s sort of like trickle down “coolness” (which doesn’t ordinarily apply to us nerds, BTW).  The hardcore adopt a console first and determine what kinds of games people like.  The industry follows them and the masses are influenced by the hardcore to buy and like the games the hardcore enjoy, and the process repeats itself every 5 to 6 years.  It’s sort of like the film industry bothering with all those “enchanting” indie films to charm the “hardcore” for recognition and praise.

This time around, a three-letter word changed – nay, bomb-shelled – the process: Wii.  It essentially gave the casual a different place to go; they didn’t have to listen to the hardcore or follow the games they played.  A truly alternative option opened up and the casuals basically left (even moderates followed after Sony announced its $599 price tag).  For Sony and Microsoft, that desertion has proved painful and potentially console-ending (Pachter predicted the end of consoles – probably one more generation to go but may be).  For their supporting developers, that desertion has resulted in millions of un-recouped expenses.  Few are risking anything on PS3 and the 360, and that’s likely why both manufacturers are introducing waggle-ware to (re)open a line of communication to the casual gamers.  Is it too late?  Almost assuredly yes (not to mention this splits an already small user-base – who’ll bother with these contraptions outside first party developers – and it’s not as if they have any more time to be spending on other games since the consoles can’t produce enough AAA titles like it used to without heavy-duty costs).  By now, no casual gamer is ever going to see a PS3 or 360 as anything but hardcore gaming consoles, especially when the Wii remains an attractive alternative.

EA has been – yes – a victim of that desertion this time around.  Madden can only save it so many times, and even EA knows the future is far from secure (Madden retires, Tiger brand is slowly becoming Tony Hawk: redux, and the NFL is rethinking its license deal).  The maxim, “giant today, puny tomorrow,” is as applicable to GameStop and Blockbuster as it is to EA.

So where does Apple fit in?  Well, Apple is in far better position to embrace the casual than either Sony or Microsoft; it essentially has the audience but doesn’t quite have the content.  Apple is no content provider or producer, but it certainly knows how to sell what it has.  Apple is very good at branding itself and its merchandise.  EA used to be good at this, but now it is all over the place (Army of Two? Spore? Burnout? Mass Effect? What?).  Face it, as visually oriented as gaming is, gamemakers aren’t very good marketers.  We can all count the dozens of great games that never got advertised or advertised well (Psychonauts anyone?).  Apple can help in that department; Apple can also help EA better understand what the casual market is looking for, and drive “simplicity” into EA’s early designs and development stages.  This probably doesn’t calm those fears of the hardcore, but since when did the hardcore ever care about EA?  To most of us, EA represents the Wal-Mart of the industry.  A console industry with fewer EA Games is hardly worth crying to home about.  Now, if this were Capcom, we’d all be bawling.

3)  Leveraging the Future

Ultimately, all that I’ve written references the immediate few years post an Apple takeover.  If this were to happen, Apple is clearly eying the future, and that is where an Apple-led EA could in fact change the very landscape of gaming from where we see it today.

If digital downloads is in fact where gaming is headed (and there are some doubts on this, or at least how far away it is), then an Apple-led EA would be primed to lead the charge.  Apple knows the download industry and may want to firmly establish itself as the premier “iTunes” for gaming before someone else gets too big or too entrenched in gamers’ minds.  That sort of mindshare starts with the masses, and boy does Apple have the masses.

On the other hand, if there is any speculation about digital downloads being the future, an Apple-led EA might do its darnedest to force the intersection, or get all of us there sooner than we expected.  The leverage, innovation, and content between Apple and EA would certainly be sufficient to get the job done, presuming it had the right leadership and multi-year business plan. In this sense, the real people who should be freaking out about this is GameStop CEO J Paul Raines – digital downloads will probably do to GameStop what $1 rentals and Netflix has done to Blockbuster.

With EA at its belt, Apple becomes far more than just a technology company and it would certainly provide it more leverage to push its platforms and its ideas.  Right now, anything Apple makes is at the mercy of the content providers, meaning if Apple doesn’t always play nice, then they can go elsewhere.  If Apple itself builds the content, then it gets easier to launch new ideas because there is support (and in business, big support is necessary to be followed by other support).  Threatening to withhold EA content from others would give Apple ample leverage in putting together the future of, say, digital downloads.

And that’s the end of my rant.  Back to exam studying.

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. **

Kristen Kreuk as … Chun-Li?! Wha?!

After a long hiatus… I’m back to post. There has been quite a drought in new posts and that’s because of two words: Law School. After making one of the most monumental (and may I say very expensive) shifts in my life, the notion of writing about videogames unfortunately took a literal backseat. Life as a 1L is tough — but while the workload and hours are long the satisfaction of being back in an academic setting is invigorating in many ways. Sure, life as a student after years in the work force is sometimes daunting but I wouldn’t trade a day to have come earlier. IMHO, the perspective I have from having a professional career before law school gives me mental freedom, patience, and discipline. Freedom to think about other things, patience to learn, and discipline to master. I suppose in some ways, it’s like tackling a new videogame.

New posts will probably come slower but rest assured the Green Pipe remains active. There have certainly been some major developments in the industry since my last few rants. Most notable are three:

1. The slow but sure rise of the PS3 (which BTW I talked about a long time ago). Sony’s console is starting to gain momentum but unlike EGM, which seemed quick to reverse opinion in its recent cover story, I’m not entirely sold that this PS3 comeback will be the equivalent of Gandalf’s march upon the Two Towers at the end of the second LOTR movie. Without a doubt, there are some key software releases coming this year, MGS4 the obvious poster child. But while I’m excited about this game, I think this is an example of the industry clamoring over a game the majority of the public doesn’t care as much about. The Metal Gear series saw its high-days with MGS2; fact is MGS3 never really caught on in terms of sales. Some argue that it was because the title was coached between GTA and Halo 2, but that to me sounds like a copout. If Metal Gear is so big and popular, it should have kept its own. After all, it wasn’t as if the coverage and advertising was any less (I can recall the barrage of MGS3 ads in countless magazines). That’s why MGS4 isn’t likely to put up the numbers of Halo 2 or 3. I’d even hint that MGS4 may not move as many consoles as people want to believe. Solid Snake doesn’t scream the same cool mystique that Master Chief embodies, and well, even Sony and Konami together can’t quite match the powerhouse marketing force that is Microsoft. And if MGS4 doesn’t move the needle that much, then is PS3 really the comeback kid? Maybe still. But I’d position PS3’s rise as more of an indication of how weak the 360 remains — in other words, it’s not that the PS3 is getting better, it’s actually that the 360 isn’t really striking a Toyota! momentum. More on that in future posts.

2. Oh, HD-DVD, we hardly knew ye’. I think it was quite apparent the format started out with a peg-leg when the 360 opted against making it the console’s format of choice. Face it, the outcome of this war might have been very different if there were 5-10MM 360 equipped with HD-DVD playback. Movie studios – the fickle giants that they are – might have seen better HD-DVD sales over Blu-Ray (an almost given since 360 would have been on the market longer) and kept its support with the format. Sony’s climb then would have been steeper, and hey, may be those price points on the PS3 would have dropped even faster.

Of course, one can look at MS’ decision now and insist it was a “smart” move. What if HD-DVD still lost? Then the 360 would be toast. That argument certainly has merit and as a company wanting to put out a game console, I suppose the last thing it needs is an achilles heel that isn’t even tied to content. There is a long list of reasons why HD-DVD probably would have lost even if 360 supported it out of the gate. But then again, there are also a lot of maybes that suggest HD-DVD could have put up a formidable fight if MS had acted otherwise. We’ll never know. Regardless how you feel, the truth is the next 360 will probably run on a Sony-owned format. There is admittedly something both ironic and humbling in that prospect. Competitors on the outside, sleeping together on the inside; who says there’s no drama and infidelity in the gaming world?

And *finally* 3. the meteoric rise of Nintendo Gamecube 2.0 … I mean, the Wii. I’m actually not at all surprised by the Wii’s success, and I think many of us who follow games closely knew Nintendo had a hit in the making, though even I’m taken aback by the level of success the House of Mario has reached in the past 4-6 mos. Everyone keeps asking whether Wii can sustain the momentum and I’m not so sure that’s the right question we should be debating. The real question should be broader, as in can the entire industry sustain the momentum it has with the casual gamer? Because that’s the real issue; the Wii has done a phenomenal job in enlarging the gaming circle, but can Nintendo AND its competitors reap the rewards and keep them there? That’s a very tough question, and it’s interesting to see all the companies trying to woo the casual market at this year’s GDC. The community arcade from MS to WiiWare from Nintendo are good moves, but there are real questions as to whether the industry is taking the time to ensure that casual gamers understand all this (remember who we’re dealing with here) and there are serious questions about what these moves are doing to each company’s bread and butter. For Nintendo, it’s the loyalists who want only to play Zelda, Mario and Metroid — Is a bigger remake of SSBM and SM Galaxy enough? For MS, do its Halo faithful really care that Xbox can render board games in HD? And do Sony players really want to see and interact with pimple-faced teens and moms singing Britney songs via SingStar? It’s a tough scale to balance, and with limited resources, the gambles each camp is making is definitely one reason why we’re seeing fewer releases *we* (and I say we as in mainstay gamers) care about. And it may also explain the increasing “clone effect”. Flip through a game magazine today and you may have to do a doubletake to make sure you’re looking at more than two games from two genres: racing and FPS. There’s nothing like saving money when multiple titles can be released running on the same engines and the same third-party renderware. It’s a telling sign something’s up. Is it the trend for the future? Hard to say for sure. If the Wii movement continues, it might be. Whether that’s necessarily a bad thing is once again the wrong question. The question is whether the pool of hardcore or moderate gamers keep up the giant’s share of profits. If many of us fall out and start to lose interest (come on, how many Resistance sequels do I really need?), then the console audience may truly change once again over the next 5 years. By the time the next set of consoles rollout, don’t be surprised if everyone takes a Wii approach in terms of technology.

Finally, I can’t help but at least mention that Kristen Kreuk of Smallville “fame”will play Chun-Li in the upcoming Street Fighter film. If you saw DOA and could at least appreciate the martial arts action, I suppose you’ll enjoy this film. I have a hard time believing it’ll be as bad as the first Street Fighter film with Jean Claude (and Kylie Minogue as … Cammy?!). But I have to admit, it’ll be hard for this new film to beat out one of my all-time favorite lines from that flick; it’s when Jean Claude (who plays Guile, BTW) says: I’m going to kick Bison’s ass so hard the next Bison-wannabe is gonna feel it.

Any line as MacBaine-ish as that will just sound weird coming out of Kreuk’s mouth. At least she looks the part (above).

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As console sales go, the PS3 is getting manhandled by the Nintendo Wii and DS. Even in Japan, Sony’s supposed stronghold, the Wii is outselling the Ps3 by a ratio of 5:1. Recent Japanese-centric releases have closed the margin in recent weeks, but Sony execs are clearly troubled by what they see as a week-by-week descent from grace.

That probably explains the sudden flurry of rumors about a PS3 price-cut. While Sony and some analysts continue to deny such a cut would happen, a leaked Circuit City ad shows the PS3 at $100 less (from $599 to $499) the week of July 15. As sales go, it would be highly unusual for a national chain to sell the PS3 for that much less than its competitors, not to mention the legality behind it given the Supreme Courts’ latest economically senseless ruling.

The question now is whether a $100 price drop can turn the tide on Sony’s faltering division, and thus far, the answer — at least for the US market — seems to be “no”. From the eyes of the consumer, the $499 price tag isn’t new — in fact, Sony offered a slightly less advanced version of the PS3 for that price on release so to the average consumer, this price drop, even if it’s for the higher-end model, may seem almost invisible. If you weren’t going to bite at $500 before, the addition of 40GB and memory card slots isn’t likely to radically change your opinion. This thus far unspoken reality may explain why despite the price cut, most gamer boards and blogs aren’t all that thrilled.

What will be interesting is Microsoft’s response. Although the spotlight has been on Sony, the fact is the 360 has had its fair share of lackluster sales. With the sure-fire hit, Halo 3, due Sept. 25, there’s little incentive for Microsoft to drop the price but not doing so may steal some of the thunder away from its booth. A Halo 3 or some other packaged deal might be a clever way to spoil Sony’s announcement without formally introducing a price cut.

Of course, in either instance, the winner is still Nintendo. Sony will now surely be bleeding dollars well past the usual 3-year marker for console profitability, and the tug-of-war for hardcore gamers (who, btw, apparently drive most of this industry) between Sony and Microsoft is keeping both preoccupied enough to practically ignore the larger picture. All in awhile, the DS and the Wii are cleaning up the house. Who would have thought Nintendo would ever — even for a moment — be worth more than Sony?

Expect an all-out war at mini-E3 this year. Sony will try to push its remaining exclusives (Uncharted, Heavenly Sword, Final Fantasy XIII, Tekken 6, Metal Gear Solid 4) and tout its blu-ray technology. Problem is 3 out of the 5 big titles are now 2008 and the blu-ray advantage hasn’t demonstrated its worth quite yet. Microsoft will ride Master Chief as far as he can take them, but it also has Mass Effect, Beautiful Katamari and Too Human. Problem with the 360 is that beyond that, it doesn’t have much more.

GTA4, DMC4, and SC4 — now all multi-platform will probably lead the chatterbox, but it will be Nintendo’s Wii that has the most to gain or lose. The Press will want to see whether that fancy-pants remote can do more than replicate fishing games and golf. If the DS is any indication, then Nintendo should wow its audiences with Metroid Prime 3, Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl — all 3 are set for release this year. If the Wii can establish why it should remain relevant at this parade, then look for it to remain dominant through the holidays.

Me, I only care about one game, and it’s a remake of sorts. Bloody Capcom has *finally* given us 2-D gamers the gem we’ve always wanted.

Here are some other potential announcements I suspect will be part of each company’s press meetings:

Sony:

(1) HOME will be pushed into 2008 but become a central component of Sony’s push to capture the mainstream gamer — good luck with that non-mainstream pricetag.

(2) The ailing PSP will see a redesign — likely thinner with a built-in hard-disk. Unfortunately, Sony will keep saying its already defunct UMD format is still alive and “popular”.

Microsoft

(1) Look for more Sony exclusives to jump ship. The most talked-about one is likely to be Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4 and Namco’s Tekken 6. The only one that probably won’t quite make it over is Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy 13 but something tells me 360 is going to get something Square — may be a derivative of the FF universe akin to Crystal Chronicles. After all, how else are developers going to recoup costs — the PS3 penetration numbers are simply nowhere near the Wii’s or 360’s, and won’t be anytime soon.

(2) And while talking exclusives, prepare for an onslaught of US companies declaring them on the 360. Microsoft’s push for its Games on Windows platform will finally see some benefit as PC titles will migrate over to the 360, bolstering the company’s already dominant LIVE service.

(3) There are rumors Microsoft might be getting into the handheld fight but that’s a tough one to call. Rumors of MS stealing former PSP and Gameboy designers has floated around the Net for some time but that end-result was the Zune. With the games division poised to turn its FIRST ever profit (remember the orig. Xbox never made a dime — costing Microsoft an estimated $3.5bn), it makes little sense for the Redmond-based powerhouse to bleed more dollars and scare off its true believers (aka Wall Street investors). Sorry, no dice here.

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So the ESRB “slip” about an XBOX 360 title turns out to be true. Eidos UK officially announced that Tomb Raider Anniversary — already released on the PlayStation 2 and PC — will have an episodic release through the XBOX Live Marketplace before its retail release later in the year. For the 360, will mark the first time a retail game is sold via its online store. The game will be made available through four separate downloads, the first two are expected to be released in September with the latter two reaching gamers shortly thereafter. Minus the manor section (which will be available for free), the entire game will cost 2400 MS points, or roughly $30 which matches the MSRP of the current console releases. It’s possible (and probably likely) the retail version will be priced higher — though I don’t suspect by much.  The only bad part about this should-be historic gesture is that Eidos is only allowing those who have TR Legend to download Anniversary — does this make sense to anyone?   Why Eidos is doing this makes little sense, especially if you think about the fact that Anniversary is supposed to be a way to enter the world of Tomb Raider for those who may not yet be familiar with it.  Without a doubt, Eidos is  losing out on online sales by forcing consumers to buy Legend in order to access this option.

This news comes on the heel of Capcom’s announcement that it had signed an agreement with Valve’s online distribution system Stream. Capcom will bring Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, Onimusha 3, Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition and Supper Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (try saying that three times fast) to Stream — and future Capcom titles are also part of this deal. Capcom is the first Japanese developer to sign up with Valve and its move might be the first signal that we may be moving closer to the day when entire games will be purchased online. MS and Sony have repeatedly made mention of this idea — and that it is very likely in the next-gen that disc formats will be made defunct by broadband distribution. While I’d like to agree with them, I do think part of gaming is driven by material collection — it’s the same reason why many people (though not as many as before) still buy music CDs. CD sales in Europe and Japan for instance remain healthy — and that is because music publishers bring out CDs packed with exclusive content (music videos, interviews, not-for-online tracks). US publishers haven’t quite moved in that direction just yet but it’s one way to keep retail sales flowing. That might also explain why so many Japanese console games are released with limited editions and extra swag. We’re already starting to see such collectibility slip into US gaming culture with Halo 3 and multiple variations of Gears of War. As broadband penetration picks up, I’d suspect we’re going to get a lot more of these types of releases. The question is whether broadband will actually make up the majority of future game purchases. If the price difference is substantial then it just might — but something tells me it’s still unlikely — or at least a decade away.

BTW, for all of you staring at the photo, that’s Karima Adebibe — the model Eidos hired to represent Lara Croft for TR: Legend released last year. Eidos has always hired a new model to be Lara for each of its games dating all the way back to the decade old orginal Tomb Raider game (the one Anniversary is a remake of). Based on most gamers’ views, they think Karima is the closest to Lara there has ever been (well, perhaps excluding Angelina Jolie — though that’s debatable after the painfully awful “Cradle of Life”).