OP-ED: Metacritic Presents Real Problems for the Industry

Metacritic

Metacritic is a problem; few will attempt to deny that. Far too often — which is to say, ever — publishers rely on it as something more than a potentially accurate snapshot of a game’s critical reception. Gamers sometimes look to it as either a definitive statement on whether a game is good or bad, or as a means for pointing out how a review is ‘wrong.’ To say Metacritic is outright ruining the industry would, in my opinion, be a stretch, but it clearly is not doing it any good.

For the uninitiated, Metacritic is a reviews aggregator. It collects reviews of videogames, movies, TV shows, and music albums from a variety of publications, presenting a ‘Metascore’ for each title. This is a weighted average of all the review scores the site tracks, meaning certain publications’ reviews have more impact on the Metascore than others. It’s problematic enough when scores are the only thing readers look at, rather than the text that accompanies it, but Metacritic breaks the opinions conveyed in dozens of reviews down into a single number that readers and game publishers alike often look to when discussing the merits of a game.

The scores used to calculate the Metascore have issues before they are even averaged. Metacritic operates on a 0-100 scale. While it’s simple to convert some scores into this scale (if it’s necessary at all), others are not so easy. 1UP, for example, uses letter grades. The manner in which these scores should be converted into Metacritic scores is a matter of some debate; Metacritic says a B- is equal to a 67 because the grades A+ through F- have to be mapped to the full range of its scale, when in reality most people would view a B- as being more positive than a 67. This also doesn’t account for the different interpretation of scores that outlets have — some treat 7 as an average score, which I see as a problem in an of itself, while others see 5 as average. Trying to compensate for these variations is a nigh-impossible task and, lest we forget, Metacritic will assign scores to reviews that do not provide them.

Anyone who reviews videogames — or any form of entertainment, really — will tell you the score is but one part of the puzzle; in some cases, it’s looked upon as a necessary evil, as certain outlets’ experiments with ditching scores altogether have been deemed failures. While some might look to the score to get a quick impression of how the reviewer in question felt about a game, reading the text is almost always a critical step in understanding what he or she thought of the game. Two examples that immediately jump to mind: Frank Cifaldi gave Monkey Island 2: Special Edition a C on 1UP, not because the game itself is anything short of terrific, but because the Special Edition package itself was terribly lacking; and Jim Sterling of Destructoid famously gave Deadly Premonition a 10 despite its many flaws. If you looked only at the scores, which Metacritic encourages people to do even if it does include links to the full reviews, you might look at these two games much differently than if you had read the accompanying reviews.

The act of simplifying reviews into a single Metascore also feeds into a misconception some hold about reviews. If you browse into the comments of a review anywhere on the web (particularly those of especially big games), you’re likely to come across those criticizing the reviewer for his or her take on a game. People seem to mistaken reviews as something which should be ‘objective.’ “Stop giving your opinion and tell us about the game” is a notion you’ll see expressed from time to time, as if it is the job of a reviewer to go down a list of items that need to be addressed — objectively! — and nothing else. In reality, aside from commenting on certain aspects — whether or not a game’s framerate holds up, or if its online setup is prone to disconnects — a review is typically an inherently subjective pieces of criticism, not an objective determination of whether a game is worth your money. They tell you what a particular person thinks of a game, which is why you’ll see some publications provide multiple takes (and even multiple scores) on the same game: not everyone agrees on what’s good and what isn’t, and nor should they. Providing people with an average score to point to when a score deviates from the pack is not helpful to anyone.

(As an aside, the existence of Metascores don’t help the situation where readers become angry with reviewers because a score does not meet their pre-existing notion of what score a game should have received — even if they’ve never played it themselves. To be fair, this isn’t exclusively a game-specific phenomenon; just look at how the positive reviews of The Dark Knight Rises on Rotten Tomatoes have only a handful of comments whereas the few reviews labeled as ‘rotten’ have hundreds.)

Fallout New Vegas

Keeping this in mind, it doesn’t make sense to average review scores together. Even if all reviewers were to use an identical 100-point scale, what purpose does it serve to give us an average? As noted by IGN’s Keza MacDonald, “A Metacritic average undermines the whole concept of what a review is supposed to be: an experienced critic’s informed and entertaining opinion. Instead it turns reviews into a crowd-sourced number, an average. You can’t average out opinions.” And she’s right: if one person scores a game a 10 and another a 4, telling us its Metascore is 7 accomplishes nothing.

This might all sound unimportant in terms of how it affects the industry, but as noted above, it’s not just gamers who look at Metacritic. Publishers do, too, and in some cases they rely on these scores too heavily, as evidenced by well-publicized stories about bonuses being tied to Metacritic. Most famously, Obsidian’s Chris Avellone revealed on Twitter earlier this year that the developer missed out on receiving a bonus for its work on Fallout: New Vegas, which it was not entitled to royalties on, because it failed to reach the required Metascore. 85+ was what was required to receive the bonus; the game ended up at 84. Some might argue developers should never agree to such terms in the first place, but they may not always have the leverage needed to get their way. And don’t mistaken the number of times this arrangement has been revealed publicly with the number of bonuses tied to Metascores — it happens more often than you might think.

While it’s difficult to blame publishers for wanting review scores to be high, as they can have an impact on sales, the practice of tying bonuses directly to something like a Metascore is flat-out wrong. And it’s something that should concern more than just the developers whose livelihoods are dependent upon the way these averages are calculated. Contracts with these sort of incentives put pressure on developers to design games in a way that is conducive to receiving higher review scores, rather than merely creating the game they want and that gamers will enjoy. This isn’t some conspiracy theory, either, as then-EA Sports president Peter Moore acknowledged the possibility in 2010. “You can break Metacritic down and say, ‘We can get two extra points by doing this,’ but it may not actually enhance the gamers’ experience, and that is where there is a line we have to be careful we don’t cross. It is a bit of a slippery slope if you focus everything on Metacritic.” Even if EA Sports avoided designing games in this fashion under Moore’s watch, it doesn’t mean developers throughout the industry resist the urge to do what’s necessary to stay in business.

The knowledge that their scores could have a direct impact on developers getting paid also puts a pressure on reviewers that did not previously exist. Sure, reviews could have influenced gamers’ decision to purchase a game, but that is an indirect effect. Now their scores could potentially have a direct correlation with bonuses being paid out, and while one hopes reviewers are not affected by this (and among those I know, I don’t believe they are), ideally it would not even be a concern in the first place.

Metascores aren’t contained to Metacritic, either; you’ll find them in the right column of game pages on Steam alongside the game’s genre, release date, and features. Even having said all of this, I’d be lying if I said my impression of a game on Steam I’m unfamiliar with is not to some degree colored when I see a Metascore below, say, 75. Yet it would be a mistake to write off games simply because of what their average review score is; if I did that I never would have touched Costume Quest, Mercenaries 2, The Simpsons Game, Ticket to Ride, or Earth Defense Force 2017, all of which I enjoyed despite all five falling into the 69-74 Metascore range.

Solving this problem seems simple, although that doesn’t mean a solution is realistic. Unfortunately, the popularity of sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes make it unlikely that we’ll see Metascores going away anytime soon. I do, however, hope developers push back and publishers realize the fallacy of putting so much weight on a number determined by a secret formula that may or may not be representative of what critics actually think of a game.

By Chris Pereira

Will Moderation Render Wii U’s Miiverse Ineffectual?

Miiverse

Nintendo has largely avoided discussing the subject of online when it comes to Wii U; we’re still in the dark on details regarding the presence of friend codes and other things that have hampered the online experience for owners of Nintendo’s previous consoles. The one exception to this has been Miiverse, which has the potential to connect Wii U owners with each other in a new, interesting way. There is, however, at least one issue that stands in the way of it being a major success (aside from Wii U itself selling well), and that is Nintendo’s desire to provide a safe environment for younger gamers.

Miiverse allows Wii U owners to share messages with others both inside and outside of games; New Super Mario Bros. U demonstrated this week how players’ messages can be shown on the level select screen or following Mario’s death. Messages can be either typed out or hand-drawn. Either way, the potential for spoilers or inappropriate messages to be shared through these channels is great, and Nintendo has several ways of ensuring those undesirable messages are seen by as few people as possible.

As explained to Hero Complex by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, there are three ways of dealing with these messages. The first is an automated filter which will search out words Nintendo doesn’t want being used. This is only so effective, though, because it can’t recognize hand-drawn notes, and because for as many words that are added to the filter list, there are a dozen more ways to spell out what sort of terrible things some anonymous gamer would allegedly (read: not) do to you and your mother if you were to meet in real life.

Another method will be to allow users to flag content they feel should not be on Miiverse, a solution which would require the questionable content to make it into the wild in the first place.

That’s where the third, and most dubious comes into play: human moderation. Iwata said Nintendo will hire a team to monitor the content being published to Miiverse, and only after it’s approved by one of these individuals will it make it onto the screen of other Wii U users (Wii Users?).

It’s undoubtedly the most effective way of preventing children from seeing phallic drawings and adult language, but the downside is it dramatically slows the process of getting Miiverse posts distributed. Nintendo is creating a bottleneck that ensures you’ll never be able to get a message posted as quickly as you’d like.

Iwata admitted, “The attraction of a social network is the immediacy of the feedback,” while also making it clear that parents need to be able to rest assured Miiverse won’t turn into Second Life, the (at times) notoriously raunchy free-to-play MMO. He went on to say the matter of how long it will take for messages to make their way through moderation will depend on feedback once Miiverse has launched, adding, “But personally, I think 30 minutes should be acceptable.”

30 minutes to post feedback on a level in New Super Mario Bros. U seems plenty fair, but will Nintendo have the capacity to reach that goal without letting some undesirable messages making their way through the cracks? Even if they do, I suspect the moderation process will negatively impact the aspects of Miiverse which lend themselves to more immediate conversations. Will anyone really want to carry out a message board-style discussion if it requires a 30-minute wait for each message to go through?

Nintendo has always been about providing a safe online experience, so none of this comes as a surprise. However, if it wants to be able to better compete with Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, at some point it will need to rely on optional parental controls dictating whom players can connect and socialize with online rather than resorting to blanket policies like this which will drag down the experience for adults who are willing to be exposed to the occasional swear word or naughty illustration.

By Chris Pereira

John Carmack Doesn’t Take Kindly to “Snooty” FPS Haters

Call of Duty Black Ops

First-person shooters are arguably the most popular and mainstream of videogame genres. And as a result of that, there has been a backlash from a certain segment of gamers who are tired of seeing FPS games released left and right. John Carmack, id Software co-founder and a key player in the development of some of the most influential of early FPSes, like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, and Quake, doesn’t agree with the hate and resents the implication that making an FPS is synonymous with avoiding creativity. After all, as he puts it, “As long as people are buying it, it means they’re enjoying it.”

Speaking with IndustryGamers, Carmack described id’s upcoming FPS Rage as “not just, ‘Here’s your squadmates.’ But that’s still a proven formula that people like, and it’s a mistake to [discount that]. As long as people are buying it, it means they’re enjoying it. If they buy the next Call of Duty, it’s because they loved the last one and they want more of it.

“So I am pretty down on people who take the sort of creative auteurs’ perspective. It’s like ‘Oh, we’re not being creative.’ But we’re creating value for people — that’s our job! It’s not to do something that nobody’s ever seen before. It’s to do something that people love so much they’re willing to give us money for.”

Carmack does raise a good point; for as much as Activision is berated for supposedly dishing out the same experience year after year in Call of Duty, those games are undeniably serving a market — and a sizable one at that.

“So I do get pretty down on people that — you see some of the indie developers that really take a snooty attitude about this. It’s almost as if it’s popular, it’s not good. And that’s just not true.”

Call of Duty is the biggest target as it’s the biggest FPS on the market. It’s even taken flak from fellow FPS developer DICE, the developer of Battlefield and Mirror’s Edge. Earlier this year, its GM, Karl-Magnus Troedsson, said, “Our competitors are getting lazy. They’re using the same engine, the same recipe for building a game. At some point you need to take that leap. I haven’t seen them take that leap since a long time ago.” And don’t forget about Duty Calls, the promotional game bashing Call of Duty that was meant to promote Bulletstorm.

Clearly, to make an FPS is not to abandon creativity — Irrational Games seems to have proven that with its extremely impressive E3 showing of BioShock Infinite. That isn’t going to stop those with a disdain for the genre from continuing to bash FPS games as a whole. Quite possibly, it may not be until the frequency of FPS releases quiets down dramatically — if that ever happens — that the hate finally begins to subside.

By Chris Pereira

Peter Moore on Japan, EA, The Future


Peter Moore wears his career on his sleeve…or, more exactly, his arms. Sources differ on whether the Halo 2 tattoo he famously brandished at the 2004 Electronic Entertainment Expo is still there or not, but regardless of its current status, it reflects the brash personality he’s brought to Sega, Microsoft and Electronic Arts during his time at each outfit. In August he was promoted to COO at EA, the position he used to have at Sega of America, making him once again one of the most powerful men in the game business.

He sat down with Japan’s Famitsu magazine for a long interview this week, and — despite the original Xbox’s Asian struggles during his time at Microsoft — Moore sounded remarkably upbeat about the Japanese market in general. “Japan is a very active market,” he said, “and I think it’s really got this spirit of always trying something new. The Japan game industry, in particular, is really unique in its passion and its cutting-edge technology — those two things, combined, I think lets it run with anyone else in the world. I remember during my time at Sega, when Tetsuya Mizuguchi created Sega Rally; watching people have lots of fun playing it on dial-up. I really had to respect the drive among Japanese creators to always pursue new things.”

That hasn’t faltered any since the Dreamcast era he oversaw, in his eyes. “The level of Japanese technology is just as high as it was,” he said. “The handheld market, in particular, has really matured, probably because the rail network is a fully-integrated part of society. I don’t think portables have taken root so deeply in any other country in the world. It’s a remarkable contrast from the US, where the culture revolves around playing console games on big-screen TVs in your large living room.”

Even in the US, though, the major trend as of late seems to be going small — with smartphones, social networks, and other forms of casual gaming. Moore, who oversees develop on both little iPhone projects and massive games like Battlefield 3, doesn’t seem to mind. “What I can say is that the users always win in the end,” he noted, “something I think the music market has made very plain. You had a retail music market that network distribution got driven into, and nobody had any idea how it would turn out at first. Now, though, it’s transformed into a market where people can get the music they want more quickly and easily than ever. That’s what we want to do at EA. As games go more into the cloud, there’ll come a time when game services will be more tuned to user needs than ever before, something that I think Japanese gamers will be seeing soon enough.”

It does seem that, overall, Japanese gamers are responding a bit more to EA these days. FIFA 12, for example, got 39 out of 40 points in Famitsu’s review last month — the highest score for any EA game ever, and a feat Moore is endlessly proud of. “I’ve spent the day going around shops in Akihabara and elsewhere, and I can tell that there’s a major push for a lot of our titles,” he said. “If we put in the effort on game quality, marketing investment, and branding, I think we’ve got to succeed. Orders on Battlefield 3 have been going well, and I think we’ll have a really strong launch in Japan. We’ll be releasing Need for Speed: The Run on December 1 — Japan has a really developed car culture, and a lot of the best racing games have come from Japan. Along those lines, I think we’ll take a triple-jump approach this holiday season with Battlefield, FIFA and Need for Speed.”

Japan, as of late, has had a reputation as being a new “Galapagos” of technology, pursuing its own games and hardware and neither importing nor exporting much beyond its boundaries gamewise. Moore couldn’t disagree with that stereotype more: “We live in a connected world, one where you can see all kinds of exciting things no matter where you are, and Japan is the same way. There’s a lot that’s unique about Japanese culture, but Japan isn’t being left behind; they just respect their traditions. They’re always on the cutting edge, and they’re very flexible with taking in technology from the US and Europe. I really don’t see this.”

As proof of that, he brings up the Wii U, a system, he’s characteristically enthusiastic about. “It’s a very exciting machine and I’m glad to see it out there,” he said. “I mean, a hi-def Nintendo platform! There’s nothing that could make me happier. Its online capabilities are really extensive, too, so we’ll be able to differentiate ourselves from the competition more easily with our sports lineup. We can’t announce anything yet, but what I can say is that Nintendo is a company that’s been producing new types of play culture for years. The 3DS and Wii U have taken on that DNA, so I really can’t wait to see what kind of new surprises are waiting for us.”

Where’s the world industry going in the future? To Moore, the keyword to follow is “engagement.” “Up to now,” he explained. “the business model was to make advertising and try to spread it across as wide a range as possible in hopes of getting people to notice and buy our games. Recently, though, we’ve been talking more proactively with customers and selling products based on their reactions. There are lots of talented developers in the world, from Activision and Capcom to Konami and Namco Bandai Games, but we don’t want to do the same thing as everyone else — we want to build a foundation, like Facebook and Apple have, and use that to expand the entertainment opportunities for our customers.”

By Kevin Gifford

Ubisoft’s Wii U Exclusive FPS Demoed, Assassin’s Creed Possibilities Pondered

Assassin's Creed

Nintendo is holding a roundtable tonight with a focus on third-parties. Ubisoft is being prominently featured as it and Nintendo have been working closely together. The French publisher announced it has five games in the works for Wii U including three existing franchises in Assassin’s Creed, Ghost Recon, and Raving Rabbids.

Ghost Recon Online was demonstrated first. The tablet controller’s screen is used as “Crosscom 2.0″ and offers tactical maps that players can share among team members. It also allows players to call in missile strikes or check out a recon view from a drone in the sky above. Online services include a personalized account system, rankings, matchmaking, and friends lists. The controller can alternatively be used without the TV screen to track friends’ online activities. A payment model for the Wii U game has not yet been announced; the PC version will be a free-to-play title.

Two brand-new titles are also being brought to Wii U by Ubisoft. One is a sports title of some sort. The other, Killer Freaks From Outer Space, is an exclusive first-person shooter coming out in 2012 that’s being built around the controller. It’s heavily reliant on motion control with both the TV and controller screens showing the same image. Tilt functionality seems to be unwieldy but it’s entirely possible that it was simply miscalibrated. Accelerometer control was combined with dual sticks with it looking as if the right stick controls the use of a jet pack. Enemies resemble Ubisoft’s own Rabbids. The game has a goofy aesthetic and a chatty protagonist. Multiplayer is played with one player on the Wii U controller and the other using a Wii Classic Controller. The former is a ‘real-time enemy director,’ guiding enemy attacks against the Classic Controller-wielding player who plays as if it were a typical shooter.

There was, unfortunately, no word on whether or not the Assassin’s Creed game for Wii U will be a new game or a port. Nothing was demoed. There was instead a lot of talk about how a Wii U version will be on par with other consoles, although we did learn of some possible uses for the new controller: A persistent map, interactive database, and eagle vision were all mentioned.

By Chris Pereira

Top 10 Announcements of E3 2011

There have been a number of big E3 stories this year between Nintendo’s new console being unveiled, Sony offering new details on its second handheld, and the wide array of game announcements that have been made. E3 will carry on for the rest of the week. The bulk of the announcements have already happened, though, and so we’re ready to take a look back and decide which ten were the biggest of the show. Without further ado, here’s a look at our top announcements (in no particular order) from E3 2011. Check back later today for our picks for the show’s top trailers.

Nintendo’s Wii Successor is the Wii U

Although a new system for 2012 had been confirmed prior to the show, it wasn’t until Nintendo’s E3 media briefing that it was officially revealed as the Wii U. The system uses a touchscreen-equipped controller that looks like a tablet with buttons and analog sticks. It features the ability to play games on the controller without the use of a TV screen. It’s also backwards compatible with everything from the Wii, capable of 1080p, and looks like it could end up with a great deal of third-party support. It won’t be out until next year, so important details like price and launch lineup weren’t mentioned. Luckily for now we can drool over the prospect of Zelda in HD.

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NGP is Officially Called Vita and Costs $250

PlayStation Vita

The NGP hardware and many of its games had been shown in great detail previously. As we’re approaching the system’s (still unknown) release date, we were clued in to a lower-than-expected price and a bizarre name. The Wi-Fi-only model will cost $249.99 upon release, with a 3G-capable version costing $299.99. Expectations were that it would cost more than Nintendo’s 3DS, so to see you can get such an impressive piece of tech for the same price was exciting news. ‘PlayStation Vita’ was announced as the system’s name. It’s a strange choice, to be sure, and it may have actually benefited from the name leaking ahead of time as it reduced some of the surprise. Sony also has Nintendo to thank for ‘Wii U’ coming along less than a day later, giving people a different new name to hate on.

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Halo 4 is the Start of a New Trilogy

More Halo games were inevitable, it just wasn’t abundantly clear that the first non-Bungie game would pick up where the Master Chief left off. Nothing more than a teaser trailer was shown, so we are unaware if the Covenant or Flood are still a threat, nor do we know how much time has passed since Halo 3 concluded. Adding to the surprise was the detail that Halo 4 is the start of a new trilogy, the entirety of which may not end up on Xbox 360 before its successor comes along.

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New Super Smash Bros. Headed to Wii U and 3DS

Super Smash Bros. Brawl

In order to help ensure that the hardcore Nintendo fans are as excited as possible for Wii U, a new Super Smash Bros. game was announced for it alongside a 3DS version. Development has yet to begin, and we consequently know nothing about the two games besides the fact that Masahiro Sakurai and Project Sora are working on them. Specifics haven’t been talked about officially, but there will be some connectivity between the two titles.

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Irrational Games is Working on an All-New BioShock for Vita

BioShock

Irrational’s Ken Levine briefly talked about Move support for BioShock Infinite at Sony’s press conference before moving on to a much more exciting prospect: A new BioShock game for Vita. He said little at the time but has since elaborated to say it is an all-new, core game “being built from the ground up.” Details are still unknown and likely will stay that way for a while. If it ends up as an exclusive (that wasn’t specifically indicated), that would be one hell of a title for Sony to tout along with games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

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By Chris Pereira

Wii U Not Backwards Compatible with GameCube Games

GameCube

Any hope you had of playing Super Mario Sunshine or Super Smash Bros. Melee on your Wii U can be cast aside. Along with every other GameCube game on the market, they won’t be playable.

Giant Bomb has learned from Nintendo PR director Mark Franklin that Wii U is not compatible with GameCube games, which explains the apparent lack of GameCube controller inputs on the system. On the bright side, we do know it’s fully backwards compatible with Wii games and controllers (including things like the Nunchuk and Balance Board), so your existing collection of Nintendo products won’t be entirely useless on Wii U. The Wii, by contrast, had four GameCube controller inputs and was able to play all of its predecessor’s games.

The system is planned for a release in 2012, at some point after March.

By Chris Pereira

Motion Controls Should be Firewalled Off From the Main Experience, Says Ken Levine

PlayStation Move

Irrational Games boss Ken Levine came on stage during Sony’s E3 press conference to commit to using PlayStation Move in BioShock Infinite in some capacity. Whatever form that support comes in, we don’t yet know, just don’t expect it to be forced upon players in any way. Levine has shared his policy on motion controls and he isn’t in favor of being pushy as he describes himself as a “really conservative guy at heart” who still does “most of my gaming on mouse and keyboard.”

“Any experience that sits in the realm of motion play needs to be kept separate from the main experience,” Levine told OXM during E3. “It needs to be firewalled off so that if this experiment isn’t for you, or doesn’t turn out to be all that great, you just ignore it.”

He said the main experience needs to be protected from “any new experience we add.” Referring to Mass Effect 3′s addition of Kinect voice control, which is used for commanding squadmates, Levine said, “I like the stuff they’re doing with Mass Effect 3, in terms of making some of the interface aspects a little less thorny — more the squad commands than the conversation, as that’s a bit of a challenge on the controller.”

“What you don’t want to do is add something in and enforce it on anybody,” he said. “Do an experiment, fine! We’re in the experimental stage, and people shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting as long as we can firewall off and protect what we know works. If we don’t experiment, we don’t progress.”

This should come as reassuring news to the BioShock purists who were hoping that Move support wouldn’t infringe upon what looks to be shaping up to be a great game.

By Chris Pereira

OP-ED: I Don’t Care if the Current Gen Lasted “Way Too Long”

Unreal Engine 4

This generation of game consoles has been a strange and noteworthy one, and not just because it marked a dramatic shift as things like downloadable content, online passes, online gameplay, the notion of games as a service, and so on became increasingly significant aspects of the business. The consoles themselves have been around for an unusually long time without being replaced, let alone without us getting some sort of official details on their successors. Square Enix’s Julien Merceron thinks this generation has lasted too long and that console manufacturers have made a huge mistake in not bringing out new consoles more quickly. From a business perspective, there are reasons to believe he may have a point, but as a gamer I’m happy with the way things have played out.

Merceron, who is Square Enix’s worldwide technology director, spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about the pros and cons of having complex hardware in a console. According to him, complex hardware makes selling a console more difficult initially as quality games are harder to come by. In the long-term, it can help to ensure games get better and better looking over the life of the hardware. He said this is less of an issue now because online functionality can help to manage longevity. “And I would suggest that maybe we don’t want long generations. We have Sony and Microsoft talking about this generation lasting 7,8,9 or even 10 years and it’s the biggest mistake they’ve ever made.

“This generation has been way too long, and I say this because you have a lot of developers that work on a new platform, and perhaps will not succeed, so they will wait for the next generation, and will jump on that platform. You could not do that with this generation though. So these developers went elsewhere to see if the grass was greener. They found web browsers, they found iOS, they found other things and a lot of them won’t come back to the hardware platforms. So you could look at it that thanks to Microsoft and Sony and the length of this generation, it helped the emergence of other platforms and helped them get strong before the next hardware comes out.”

Certainly, there is evidence that suggests the industry might be better off if this generation ended and the next began. The industry’s current lull, for one, is troubling news as sales of hardware and software have been struggling month after month, even when looking at newer hardware (3DS or Vita) or games that should have sold much better (Max Payne 3). Price drops, which will presumably be coming for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 later this year, could help to some degree, just as sales of the DS’ were following the DSi and DSi XL price cut in May.

That alone may not be enough, however; the number of new IPs being introduced, at least in the traditional console space, is quite small at this point in time. We typically see new franchises launched in the early years of a new console cycle — look at how Gears of War and Mass Effect made their respective debuts in 2006, or Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted did in 2007. Despite there now being a larger install base, it’s sequels that tend to get the bulk of publishers’ attention this far into a console cycle. There are brand-new titles in the works for current hardware — Watch Dogs, Beyond, The Last of Us — but those are exceptions to the rule, even though I and many others would love to see more of them.

There is also Merceron’s specific point, that alternative gaming platforms — iOS, browsers, and so on — are getting attention they would not have if the PlayStation 4, Xbox 720, and Wii U had come out in a more timely fashion. I think there is some truth in this, although I question how many developers really up and abandoned the current generation of consoles because of their initial struggles with it. There are more than a few Japanese developers, Square Enix included, who were unprepared for HD game development and kept plugging away despite that fact. And as those alternative platforms became more capable and their reach grew, they were going to attract developers regardless of the timetable console manufacturers were on.

No matter what the business implications of extending this generation are for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, I’m glad we’ve yet to see new hardware. It surprises me to feel this way, as it’s a 180 from the position I used to take. My job may, to some degree, necessitate getting my hands on the latest hardware and games, although that’s not why I would always look forward to new hardware. I absolutely adored buying new gaming systems and seeing what they have to offer; just navigating their shiny new menus would bring me great joy.

Wii U

Yet, for as much as I still like getting to play around with a brand new piece of technology, a lot of what comes with the launch of new hardware stinks. Any excuse to not have to go out and buy new consoles is more than welcome to me.

For starters, buying new hardware is expensive, particularly if you can’t help but want to buy Mario and Halo and Uncharted. At what we can safely assume will be hundreds of dollars each, it’s a significant investment just to be able to have the privilege of spending $60 a pop on games. Even if the subsidized model Microsoft is currently exploring becomes the norm, you’ll still be spending an exorbitant amount of money, only you’ll do so over the life of a contract rather than dropping it all upfront. That could be an appealing payment option for some, but I just don’t see the need for new hardware when the current systems are still more than capable of providing great experiences.

This current generation was one I looked forward to with great anticipation, both because of the potential for deeper online connectivity and high-definition visuals. If we set the Wii U aside, because its merits are a matter of some debate, what is it we’re looking forward to from the PS4 or 720? Improved specifications (which means better-looking games, as shown in the Unreal Engine 4 demo pictured above) is sure to be one of the major advancements, and while I’m all for better graphics, I would prefer developers leverage their knowledge of the existing hardware to continue pumping out great games. They may not look as nice as what could be produced on a system with less-outdated hardware, but I for one am more than satisfied with what the existing consoles can handle, games like Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, Halo 4, Borderlands 2, and so on.

While proponents of new hardware might argue it’s not as if anyone is obligated to buy a new system, those with an interest in getting to play, say, new games in their favorite franchises will have no choice but to upgrade. Those who chose to do so at launch are likely to be subjected to lower-quality games than what would be developed for existing consoles — with developers forced to learn the ins and outs of development on a new platform (and all that comes with it, like having to produce more and more high-quality assets), that leaves less time for the gameplay itself to be focused upon. Just look at Madden NFL 06 for Xbox 360, a game which looked nicer than the football games we were used to seeing, but one that had as lackluster a feature set as possible. That’s a situation that is resolved over time, though if we stick with existing consoles for longer, it’s something that can be avoided for longer.

There are other gripes I have with the prospect of buying new consoles as well, like potentially needing to purchase a whole new set of controllers for local multiplayer (in fairness, Wii U will be compatible with Wii controllers, which is hopefully something Sony and Microsoft mimic). Perhaps even worse is the idea of not having backwards compatibility with your existing game collection. It would be nice if we could swap in a new system to replace the one that came before it, but even if the discs themselves will play nice, it doesn’t mean transferring game saves and downloadable content will be anything but a monumental hassle.

This is not to say I will be skipping the new consoles as they are released. While I’m undecided about picking up a Wii U at launch — I still need details on its price, at the very least — I will invariably be getting all of the new consoles in time. However, unlike in the past, I will only be doing so because it’s what I have to do to play the latest games, not because the idea of new hardware is such an exciting proposition.

By Chris Pereira

E3: A Quick Look at Zelda in HD

Nintendo hasn’t announced any actual games for Wii U yet, but it’s dangling a few tasty tidbits in front of gamers. The most savory of these just might be a brief snippet of what a Legend of Zelda game could look like in HD. As you can see in the video above, I’ve “played” Zelda HD, although “play” is a bit of an overstatement. The Zelda HD Experience, as Nintendo is calling it, is a barely interactive demo which consists of Link walking into a temple and being confronted by a massive spider.

This is not a Skyward Sword HD port, for those expecting Nintendo to pull a Twilight Princess with the next game in the series and pushing it back to be a Wii U launch title. In fact, Zelda HD uses Twilight Princess’ art style and that game’s Link, but here it’s far more detailed and sumptuous than it appeared on Wii or GameCube. All the niceties you’d expect from an HD system are present: reflections, HDR lighting, water effects, and so on and so forth. The game looks stupendous. Of course, it’s not really interactive or a game, just a boss intro demo, so there’s no AI or input physics for the demo to worry about managing. Even so, it’s nice to see a Zelda game looking this pretty; demo users can control the camera angle and toggle lighting between night and day.

Equally impressive is the role the Wii U’s unique controller plays in the demo. The game action can be displayed either on the main TV screen or the Wii U controller, and swapping between the two formats doesn’t inflict an appreciable drop in visual quality thanks to the size and pixel density of the controller screen. When the main action is set to the TV screen, the controller functions as a map and interface menu; when the focus is reversed, the TV displays a windowed view of the action and a map. Not only is a neat idea on an abstract level, it promises tangible gameplay benefits as well.

Skyward Sword launches later this year, and the Wii U arrives in 2012. It’ll probably be a few years before we actual do see Zelda in HD, but based on today’s pie-in-the-sky demo, fans will likely be very happy with the results. (Unless Nintendo goes all Wind Waker again, just for laughs.)

By Jeremy Parish