Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
30 March 2007
Hellfire Peninsula is *meant to be* a parallel for Iraq?
Update: This in-game, NPC text makes it a little harder to argue against my guess.

The text in the shot is...
Marshal Isildor says: Do you think that demons will play fair? These beasts are more savage than orcs and more cunning than the undead.
Marshal Isildor says: How many more soldiers need to die before we start paying attention out there?

By itself, perhaps just some off-the-cuff text, but combine with the feeling I was already getting, below, and I think we might have a winner. I'll scour around some more later. Accidentally found the above quote getting ready to log off tonight.

This is something I'll need to think more about before posting again, but after about 90 minutes of WoWing with The Burning Crusade expansion, I'm beginning to think the whole Hellfire Peninsula theme is the Iraq war. Did I fall asleep when everyone else made this horribly obvious connection, or am I onto something?

We've got a portal from the Old World to the New [New Networked] World, so all the Horde and Alliance folk are essentially unwanted invaders. There's a feud between factions [1] that has been going on for some indeterminate amount of time, and for some reason you're going to be put on the front lines to stop it as, well, a sort of unrequested police action. I also very quickly found a quest that asks me to sneak in, CIA in Afghanistan style, and throw up smoke beacons (paralleling those CIA/special forces laser siters) that would tell the Alliance forces where to bomb. Add to that the fire plumes that pop up from the ground, opened oil derrick/oil refinery style, and well, I'm suspicious.

I mean, they've certainly themed areas like mad before based on popular ideas (pop as in pop culture, natch). We've got that insane pod racer themed land just north of the big goblin city one territory over from Un'Goro (can't recall names), and Un'Goro has a sustained theme of parodying Mario/Nintendo. Still, this move to direct politics, if that's what it is, is a new method for Blizzard's enjoyable madness.

(FImp for TBC: Within 90 minutes, I've already replaced my standard weapon and chest piece with quest rewards. They've tossed all semblance of game balance out the window to make people feel their $40 went to good use. This is A Bad Idea.)

Aside: It's a little hard to google the two yields, as both are pretty newsy items. Searching for "burning crusade" and "iraq" give quite a few sites that simply have [separate] stories concerning both listed on their front pages. But as an interesting coincidence, I did dig up this ironic twist of the Iraq/BC connection up on the official WoW forums:

I too am in the US Army and currently deployed to Baghdad Iraq. Tons of our wives went and bought the expansion at midnight at local Wal Marts in their areas and upgraded all our accounts for a kind of surprise, not knowing you'd have to install additional content on top of the recent ridiculous patches.

Now, not only do we not have BC because we don't have the install discs, but we CANNOT EVEN LOG IN because it says "Your account is authorized for an expansion that is newer than the installed version of World of Warcraft. Please download the required data here []" with the options to "Return to Login" or "Exit Game", so we can't even play our existing characters in the existing world!!!!

(This/My post obviously created without the benefit of Firefox's spellchecker.)

[1] This point is probably the source of the most misinterpretation. I'm not talking about the demons, but the Scryers vs. Consortium deal, where you have to choose which side you'll befriend at the price of your reputation with the other. Doesn't matter if you're Horde or Alliance, you can choose either but only one.

Admittedly, I'm not down on my Burning Crusade lore, nor even my Warcraft lore (beyond that there's something screwy about the head druid in Darnassus), but that comment still seems to have been commonly misinterpreted.
--ruffin at 17:26
Comment [ 4 ]

The hyped get hypeder: Invitation policy for the New E3
Joystiq said a few weeks ago that lots of journalists are being snubbed concerning getting invited for the forthcoming E3 2.0. A recent Kotaku post confirms that the game companies are fully in charge this time out concerning who gets invited and who does not.

Under the old system, one generally applied to attend, then supplied press credentials, and if they checked out: wham, you're in. Those credentials could be as simple as being loosely affiliated with a website. With the help of the (great) guys at N-Sider, for whom I've done all of one article, I was able to obtain entry credentials two years running. (I wasn't able to attend either time, but I still have my pass for last year. I would scan it and put it on the web, but the picture is from my driver's license. Ugh.)

It is understood that recent years have seen E3 become quite a rancorous display, an annual geek festival akin to DragonCon but sprayed with a light sheen of professionalism--very light, judging from all the booth babe photo collections that popped up every year. And it didn't help when they started holding public access days.

But the new system is just as bad in the opposite direction. According to Joystiq:
The ESA told Hill, "It is entirely up to participating companies to decide whom to invite to the event. Thus, if anyone calls ESA to ask for 'tickets' to the event, that's what they will be told."
Hill did receive an invitation after publicly saying aloud how nice it'd be to get one. (Further reading indicates that reason may also have something to do with E3 receiving more of a North American focus and Hill being in Australia, but the above quote seems to counter that.)

The result, to my eyes, is another intensifier of the tremendous influence that big game companies already wield over game journalists. Under the new scheme it's possible that, if you displease the Great Ones, you could mysteriously fail to receive your invite next time.

The ultimate result? Less insightful commentary out of the big-site attendees, meaning more of its reverse: more blather, more mindless teenager chasing, more pseudo-hipster posing, and more hype, if that's possible.

The purpose of this, really? It is an attempt by Big Console's PR departments to more accurately micro-manage the essential First Impression, that point where the general public outside the NDA firewall first finds out about a new product. Recently, Sony was all about cutting off the flow of precious, life-giving hype to Kotaku when they broke early about Playstation Home, and that was only a couple of days early! Why would they throw such a fit over 48 hours?

It's because the big companies recognize that, what with the fickle and faddish nature of game press hype, given that its main consumers are notoriously fickle and faddish teenage boys, it can fall to a single malicious word to banish a promising game or feature to Teh Suckland. (Exhibit A: "Celda.") These are people who dismiss with ease, and are rarely willing to rethink their first impressions. By controlling the message (telling the world through specially-chosen people exposed to a big unveiling show), they attempt to make the hype-happy gaming world do their bidding, instead of trading snarky little jokes about Giant Enemy Crabs.

Does my premise sound unlikely to you? Well, think of it this way. Sit for a moment and imagine if someone had broken news of Nintendo's controller early, and instead of receiving a wave of mostly uniform appreciation for the device, using phrases like "It really does look like Nintendo is reach out to non-traditional gamers," they said more things like "It remains to be seen if Wii will become anything more than Gamecube 2.0"? Then all those cheering echo posts from second-tier sites, instead of being enthusiastic celebrations of Nintendo's bold direction, become, instead, responses to grave concerns. Features about Nintendo's bold new direction will instead chart the company's downward spiral, and probably include a good number of Wii jokes along the way.

What is that I hear? Do you think I paint an overly grim picture of the enthusiast press? Well cheer up Bunky. At least, in the end, all that's at stake here are silly little video games. If you want to get a look at this debate framing, echo chamber process on a much larger and sadder scale, well, you really don't have to look very hard to find it.

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--John Harris at 02:30
Comment [ 11 ]

29 March 2007
Been busy
I've been busy with other things recently, but I'll be back writing soon I hope. Thankfully Ruffin and Martin appear to have kept you entertained.

In the meantime, I have a Play-Asia code I'm not going to be able to use, so I figured I'd toss it up here in case a reader wants to use it. I got it when I ordered Dotstream, another bit Generations game. It's not as good as Orbital or Digidrive, but it's not bad.

This code is worth $5 off a $50 order:
If you use it, please post a comment telling us what you bought. I hear they're having a 20% off everything sale over there, but I'm not going to look. I certainly don't need the temptation.
--Matt Matthews at 21:30
Comment [ 0 ]

28 March 2007
The 360 Elite
Imagine you had a chance to redesign the 360.

What would you suggest? Maybe an Xbox 360 that doesn't run at an exceedingly toasty temperature, perhaps one which doesn't have a propensity towards trying to draw crop circles in your discs and one that can actually operate without sounding like it's going to rip open a portal to hyperspace? All good ideas.

Or, maybe something less significant, like fixing the controller with a D-Pad that doesn't groan and move like an ageing strumpet even when brand new? Sure, we live in the analog stick era but those Live! Arcade games should still play best with a D-Pad, right? It would make sense for Microsoft to fix that up.

Maybe we'll get all this stuff in the future. Instead, Microsoft have finally confirmed the Xbox 360 Elite. Seeing as everyone's doing their best to copy Apple's business model these days, it probably comes as no surprise to see that Microsoft are imitating the famous black tax. Oh, and HDMI is in it too. And a 120gb hard drive.

It's a bad move, for various reasons. First, you've got the black. You've got the HDMI. Playstation 3, anyone? It's clear that Microsoft has been put in a difficult position: if they decide to incorporate Sony's highly-touted PS3 features - Wi-Fi, HD-DVD and HDMI - into the 360 they'll have to bump up the price and lose their position as the 'cheaper' next-gen console, as well as having to go back on a year's worth of press releases exclaiming said features to be irrelevant. But the pricing becomes exactly why the Elite is such a ridiculous proposition. With an MSRP of $480, it becomes just that much closer to the PS3's $600. For $120 extra, at least Sony are throwing in Blu-Ray and Wi-Fi.

Make no mistake, the Elite is not about the games. This is not a 360 for playing games on. No, Microsoft are turning it into a media centre for enthusiasts with money to burn. A platform so that more people can download media from Xbox Live. No doubt Microsoft are letting the dream of beating the iTunes store influence their decisions. The thing is, if you're a real media enthusiast who would benefit from an HDMI port, you're probably going to want some kind of high definition DVD format. So, you've got to buy the unsightly HD-DVD add-on drive before you can even compete with Sony's offering. Coincidentally, you've now gone and spent $680 total. What kind of enthusiast is going to be, well, enthused by that?

What would have made good sense would be to create an add-on that allows users to put their own hard-drives in the 360's enclosure. Just like you can with the PS3. Charge, say, forty bucks for it. Then the media-savvy 360 users can upgrade. Then, in the future, when the 65nm cores are ready, when the failure rate isn't quite so high that the warranty has to be extended to avoid a class-action suit and when they've got the cooling sorted out, introduce a 360 with a HDMI port and charge slightly more for it. Or, hey, leave all those features out and just give it a black paint job and hope nobody notices.

By offering a third SKU, Microsoft are just muddying their position in a further attempt to grab some extra cash. They've inadvertently made the PS3 seem like it's good value. And that can't be a good thing for them to do. How should Sony respond? Slash the price of the PS3 a little bit, like they did in Japan. If they did that, the Elite might turn out to be a very bad business decision

The real burning question, however: what superlative can Microsoft use that beats Elite? When they release the model intended to supersede the Elite, what can they call it? The Xbox UltraAwesome? Or perhaps the Xbox MegaIncredible?
--Martin at 20:49
Comment [ 15 ]

23 March 2007
Boot Camp == Booted Out
That's one heck of a list of Mac games for 2007. Let's hit some highlights of the fourteen games's "Intelligence Department" has managed to dig up.

* Stoked Rider by Bongfish- Snow Boarding Sim
* The Late Call by ByDesign Games- Stealth/Strategy
* Wakfu by Ankama Games- MMORPG
* Waterstorm by Rarebyte- Submersible Combat


Check out the link for mini-previews. Going to be a WHALE of a year!!!1!Shift-2^H!

(Look, I hate raining on the parade, but that's just not much of a list. I'm glad to see The Sims keeps getting some action and the Star Wars games, Legos or no, remain popular. But seriously, I can still get better games on an Atari Jaguar. Hopefully this means Apple's in-house iTV gaming crew have cornered the market on all the good ports. (Yes, sarcastic.)

Recently, I have enjoyed a few games of Maelstrom on my iBook. I really should finally pay my dough for that one.)
--ruffin at 21:30
Comment [ 7 ]

Touch the Dead
With a name like Touch the Dead, how can a fan of Typing of the Dead and Pinball of the Dead pass it up? As seen on GSW.

Update: Ruffin prodded me with links to the official site and some images of the game from IGN. Motivated to look further, I found some others on Worth Playing which show both screens and appear to be from last month.


--Matt Matthews at 11:16
Comment [ 1 ]

21 March 2007
Xbox Live compromised? (and a Sony comment)
Updated below.

The reports of hijacked Xbox Live/Windows Live accounts are somewhat ominous. At this point, they haven't been confirmed by Microsoft, so it might as well be a rumor.

Were there reports of this before the Windows Live beta launch recently? Obviously, it's a bit post hoc ergo propter hoc to say the availability of Windows Live is the source of a possible security breach, but the timing is suggestive. Apparently Microsoft has launched a probe. Hopefully Microsoft will issue a press release on the veracity of the reports.

If there was (or perhaps is) a problem, it hasn't been handled well. I'd rather Microsoft have been more forward if they knew of problems. Even if it was just cover for deficiencies in the Xbox 360's original design, extending the Xbox 360 warranties was a good PR move. In keeping with that, Microsoft perhaps should have stepped up to say there was a problem, that they'd fix it, and that they'd take care of anyone who was bitten by a security breach. If there are no problems, they should be out in front as soon as possible telling everyone as much.

This raises a possible explanation for why Sony is hesitant to give the PSP access to the PlayStation store. The PSP is a compromised platform. People can, and are, writing software for it, and Sony cannot control them. A user can run homebrew code on a lot of PSPs, including a program that will brick the system.

So the combination of hacked firmware and a networked application which handles a user's financial information raises the possibility of malware that phones home with that information.

Update: Kotaku has a response from Microsoft. The official word isn't informative: it just says they take security seriously and they're investigating all reports. A representative apparently conveyed to Crecente that they haven't found any security breaches. Why wasn't that in the official statement?

[Originally I wrote about Windows Live as if it were launched. It isn't, but is in public beta. Obviously, I made a mistake. More info here.]

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--Matt Matthews at 11:28
Comment [ 2 ]

20 March 2007
Euro PS3 compatibility list
Via The Register, I see that Sony has published a database of how various games work on the new version of the PlayStation 3. Here's an interesting snapshot showing the situation with Metal Gear Solid 3:
One square means noticeable issues when played on a PS3 and three squares means no issues. I wonder how many people will have the one-square versions of MGS3? And I wonder if newer games have been made with libraries from Sony that are designed to increase compatibility. For example, God of War 2, a game which may tax the system about as hard as anything we've ever seen, just came out and has three squares. That could be the emulator, or it could be Sony making sure newer games pass a certain spec before they're released.

Anyway, I hope to pore over the list more later, especially the PSOne listing, since I expect that by the time I buy a North American PS3 I'll be dealing with the same software emulation.

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--Matt Matthews at 10:25
Comment [ 5 ]

19 March 2007
Jaffe on Storytelling
While I'm a week late to the party, there was a bit of talk last week about the role of storytelling in games. Peter Molyneux kicked things off with his grand dream of emotional attachment to NPCs but, more interestingly, David Jaffe made some noise about the difficulty of storytelling in games. The gist of his argument is thus:
God of War was inspired by my love of Raiders [Of the Lost Ark], but when I finished it, I realized that the real deficiency in using a film model for games is that games are never going to elicit the same dramatic power, from a storytelling standpoint, as films.

Now, I'm not going to step in and proclaim that I know more about the development of games than David Jaffe. Because that's not true. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with the comparison to film. It's by trying to imitate another form of media that you run into so many problems to begin with. Look at the mountains of book-to-film adaptations that are never quite as good as their literary predecessors. It's fine to indulge in a spat of film-envy and decide to want to create the "Indiana Jones of games", but it's an unachievable goal because Indiana Jones is a trilogy of films. Movies, games and books are all different forms of expression that have their own set of rules. Storytelling is, also, not the only way of conveying an emotion or being artistic. Jaffe is right when he says games can't evoke the dramatic power of movies, but games have an emotional power of their own. Which he then goes on to address:

Games create tension, camaraderie, and competition, and an adrenaline rush. So why not embrace what games are, as opposed to grafting on these emotions that, for me, so far, I haven't been successful at doing.

I can agree with this statement, in part. There is, naturally, a centric flaw with the genre that serves as an imposition for traditional, expansive narrative. While the author and the director can meticulously allow for every detail, the game designer has to accommodate the fact that the player will fall down the same hole fifteen times or forget the key in the room he passed two minutes ago and have to backtrack for it. That wonderful dramatic piece of music you're hearing as your run down the corridor before a boss certainly loses its impact when you're doing it for the sixth time.

The trouble is, tension, camaraderie and competition are just a few of the emotions that I think gaming is good for. They come as standard with the territory. What about pride, guilt and shame? Exploration? What about fear? I think these are harder emotions to work with, sure, but precedents have been set for all of them. They can appear in the unlikeliest places, too: the successful, infinitely regurgitated EA cash-cow Burnout combines the fear of driving 200mph into oncoming traffic with the adrenaline rush that comes along with not getting smashed into any number of bits. A game doesn't need a scintillating narrative to produce an intense emotional response and it's a shame to see such a prominent design figure state that attempting to include more emotion in games is simply a bad time investment, "why do all that work for a few blips of emotion?" Perhaps it's just time to stop trying to recreate films as games and instead focus on what emotions the gaming genre can do.
--Martin at 23:30
Comment [ 3 ]

The Art of Flying
Just what is The Art of Flying by SNK for the PlayStation 2? I took five minutes to poke around the web and I came up empty. It sure sounds intriguing, and Sony's RSS feed indicates it's coming out this month, but I can't find anything about it other than that one page.
--Matt Matthews at 21:40
Comment [ 6 ]

17 March 2007
Tomb Raider: Anniversary on Steam
According to GameDaily, Eidos has announced several of its games will appear on Steam. While that's interesting enough, I am fascinated that they're announcing that Tomb Raider: Anniversary will also be on Steam.

While it is in some sense just a remake of the original game, it is still a fairly high-profile product. I could see announcing that it would be on Steam maybe a year after it had been published, but to announce it will be on Steam at this time probably means you will be able to buy it on Steam the same day it's available in brick-and-mortar stores. That's big news.

It is also interesting that Eidos has previous cut a deal with Steam's biggest competitor, GameTap. Tomb Raiders 3, 4, 5, and 6 are all available through that service and Lara has been featured in GameTap advertisements. Here's one that they're currently running on their website:
It would appear that Eidos is testing the waters with more than one online game delivery service. I wonder which will look more attractive to them in a year: the ongoing residuals from GameTap or the outright sales* of Valve.

* Yes, I know it's not an outright sale: you still have to have yourself plugged into the Steam network. I still dislike both services intensely.

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--Matt Matthews at 10:37
Comment [ 3 ]

Please tell me the childish crap will end someday
JohnH pointed me to the video earlier, but I only now saw the abstract about Jeff Minter's talk via Simon at GameSetWatch. I haven't watched the video, but the abstract has hit one of my buttons at a time when I'm short of patience.

As with anything having to do with the Atari Jaguar, the abstract (not written by Simon or JohnH) takes time out to insult the platform:
If you were one of the 30 people to buy an Atari Jaguar, you probably bought his "Tempest 2000" and "Defender 2000" cartridges.
Isn't that funny? It is, right? Side-splittingly, fall of the floor and roll around funny! In fact, it gets funnier every time someone uses it.

You know why it's funny? Let me tell you! Because most of the people writing that kind of crap are just repeating what they've heard others say and seen others write. They've never actually played Tempest 2000 or Defender 2000 or Power Drive Rally or Club Drive. They've probably never held the Jaguar controller that apparently ranks #1 on a list of the worst controllers ever. They just repeat the Conventional Wisdom, even if they have no basis on which to judge that wisdom.

I really don't get it.

Again, this is an industry struggling to take itself seriously, and most writers for IGN, GameSpy, and GameSpot probably can't say a single intelligent thing about the Jaguar. Not that their ignorance will stop them from writing.

And this kind of juvenile, uninformed tripe isn't limited to the Jaguar. The Sega Saturn is similarly maligned for things as stupid as its ability to do transparency effects. For the love of all that's good and wholesome, people, you didn't even know what transparency effects were before someone did them on the PlayStation and suddenly they're an important point in deciding which console has games worth playing?

Remember the size of the original Xbox? Or its original controller? Also good for a laugh, right? Because those two qualities defined how good the games would be. Like Halo.

At least when people bring up Pac-man for the Atari 2600, many who have actually played it can agree that -- similarity to the arcade original aside-- it just wasn't a very fun game.

If you haven't played Tempest 2000 then, let me tell you: you missed out. It was -- and still is -- a fantastic game. And Defender 2000 is capable of inducing a deep, trancelike gaming state that I wish I could find in more games. The definitive versions of those games are only on the Jaguar

Let's just say you get a Jaguar and those games and you play. When you get hooked on them, you won't notice the Jaguar or Atari logos on the machine. It won't matter that someone saw you playing an old system that people like to ridicule. Even the controller will feel natural in your hands. All of that manhood measuring that people like to do will seem awfully stupid while you're doing what we all want to do in the first place -- have fun playing games.

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--Matt Matthews at 01:27
Comment [ 7 ]

15 March 2007
Sony needs dose of competence, better webmonkeys
Starting five months ago, I've periodically complained about Sony's failure to execute on distributing game demos for the PSP. About 45 days ago Sony promised improvement, and to their credit there is now a prominently featured link right on the front of their PSP site which claims to list all PSP demos. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sony has managed to screw it up.

If you have a PSP with browser, or you use the correct user agent string in your non-PSP browser (namely "Mozilla/4.0 (PSP (PlayStation Portable); 2.00)"), you can visit the official PSP site. When you get there, you'll see this:
Prominently featured on the main page is a link to the All Demos page. It's the blue bar in the screenshot above. As of this moment there are four demos listed on the page advertised as listing all PSP demos, as shown below:
What's wrong with that? The total number of demos is six, not four! (In case you're wondering, I'm not hiding anything below the bottom of the screen in the shot above. It doesn't scroll any further, and there are no other games to show.)

You may recall that 45 days ago Sony was advertising its Killzone: Liberation demo, although not on this All Demos page. To this day that demo is not visible through Sony's official PSP browser site. Since the announcement of improved demo support Sony has also released a Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror demo, which did get listed on the demo page. (See above.) Before any of that there was a LocoRoco Holiday Demo, which also cannot be found through the official PSP browser site. That makes six demos total, only four of which are listed on the page which describes itself as "all demos".

Look, a modestly skilled monkey could do the work Sony needs done. What they really lack is competence. The demos are available elsewhere on Sony's own fricking pages, for Pete's sake. Here's the official page for the LocoRoco Holiday Demo. The download link on this page gets you the KillZone: Liberation demo.

Forget for now that there should be dozens of PSP demos available to promote the system. (I listed some I'd advocate in this earlier post.) Put aside the fact that, as an avid PSP user, I actually check every week to see if there are new demos by visiting the official PSP site through the PSP browser. Sony is getting trounced in the handheld market (the DS outsold the PSP 3-to-1 in the U.S. in the past month), yet can't manage to exploit one of its greatest strengths over the competition. What will it take for them to change? Or will they just give up and blame someone else for their self-inflicted failure?

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--Matt Matthews at 22:59
Comment [ 3 ]

11 March 2007
Why isn't that illegal?
First, an apology: This isn't directly game related, except in the sense that a similar anti-consumer position is adopted by the companies that make and sell games.

Anyway, I'm visiting family and I noticed that my mother had bought some software from OfficeMax. On the box is a sticker saying:
Copyright Laws Prevent OfficeMax From Accepting Returns Of Software.

Defective Merchandise May Be Exchanged For The Same Item Only!
That looks like a scare tactic to keep people from returning software. What they mean, I suspect, is that a customer's potential violation of copyright law could lose them some money. However, I'm not aware of anything in copyright law that would prevent a company from accepting a software return. If it's not true, isn't it lying to the consumer?

Sometimes the world is just too insane.


--Matt Matthews at 21:29
Comment [ 12 ]

09 March 2007
Phil Harrison confirms it: exclusivity not worth it (for now)
At GDC, we have Sony's Phil Harrison saying the following (emphasis added):
As for losing GTA IV, Harrison said that the PlayStation 3 was not suitable to be the exclusive home of Rockstar's upcoming title. "I don't think PS3 has the install base to support Rockstar's investment in GTA IV on its own," Harrison told the assembled bloggers. The first next-gen Grand Theft Auto game likely cost Rockstar considerable money and development time. That being such, it couldn't have sold enough copies on PS3 alone to make exclusivity worthwhile. In the future, as the number of PS3s in homes grows, it should become easier to nab major exclusives.
I think that is awfully close to an important point I was trying to make recently: Sony expects the big-name titles to be cross-platform, primarily Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, so they can maximize the return on the huge development investment. The money saved on buying exclusives can be folded into Sony's internal studio budgets.

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--Matt Matthews at 00:21
Comment [ 3 ]

08 March 2007
On the road again
As you may have noticed, Martin is the new curmudgeon. As an Xbox 360 owner, I think Martin can add some balance to the views you can find here on Curmudgeon Gamer. Check out Mega Derived to see his personal blog.

For the next week I'll be mostly offline and less likely to blog. Hopefully Martin and veteran bloggers Ruffin, John, and Bob will find time for a few posts while I'm away. Regular readers will note that I inevitably find time for a post or two even when I'm supposed to be taking a break.

I'm taking Monster Hunter Freedom (PSP) and Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS) along with me, along with several other games for those handhelds. I had hoped Dotstream (GBA) would come in before I left, but it appears I'm out of luck.
--Matt Matthews at 21:22
Comment [ 1 ]

Things Changing, Staying Same, Re: Kotaku
So as the blog world found out last week, Sony tried to play hardball with Kotaku to keep them from posting a rumor (which in the process became all but substantiated) that they were working on a new PS3 system feature, the "Playstation Home," to combine X-box Live's popular obsessive-compulsive Achievements feature with the Wii's Charlie Brown-creator tool. The mixture will, in the end, allow people to create a virtual, anthropomorphic personification of their PS3, which will live in a little virtual house, and collect little virtual game-related trinkets that represent your game accomplishments. Perhaps a future update will let the little guy live in the virtual basement rent-free beneath his virtual mother's home.

But let's set the Playstation Home thing aside, although there is certainly a lot of comedy there to be mined. Instead, let's talk about the attitude that prompted Sony's little do-our-bidding letter to Kotaku. For assuredly, it is far from being a exclusive to them. The assumptions that lie beneath that odd missive get to the heart of why the game journalism world in general, let us not mince words here, sucks.

The big sites, the ones who get the big news first (leaving the dozens of second-tier sites to lap up their used news and reprint in the great echo chamber of the internet) usually get that news by making a Faustian bargain. The contract reads "Our PR guys will spoon-feed you news, on the condition that you present it the way we want, and when we want it." An organization that obeys that kind of edict doesn't sound, to me, like something that can be called a press. But what can a site do but play the game, or be banished to the abyss of the second-tier?

Kotaku could buck the trend because, really, people don't go there, or to Joystiq, or Insert Credit, or Penny Arcade, or (yo homies) GameSetWatch, or here, for breaking news. They go/come (t)here for commentary. That's what blogs are best at.

Of course Kotaku isn't innocent either. One of the things that Sony requested of them in their ball-collection note is their debug PS3, something that Kotaku could not have acquired without agreeing, on an unspoken level at least, to the deal. And THIS week, they did pull information gained at GDC off the site because it had actually been "embargoed," and Kotaku had received a letter from Microsoft saying, in essence, "Who's your daddy?"

Most of the top-tier game news sites, the Gamespots and the Gamespies and the Gamewhosits, do this, but of all those that have used the Red Pen to ink their names on the contract, IGN would seem to be the ones who hide it the worst.

IGN, the guys who set up a subscription plan so that one can pay for untainted access to the PR spigots of major game companies. A recent blog post from IGN Wii editor Matt Casamassina said:
There are some potentially crazy-awesome games coming down the pipeline for Wii, by the way. You guys have no idea. I know that's vague -- has to be, but I've seen some stuff that you simply have no idea even exists and frankly, if you did, you'd flip out. Comments like these have a way of backfiring on me and i'm sure some people will be annoyed that I've even brought up, since I'm unable to give even a hint about the projects in question.
Yes! Is it not a shame that you, member of the gaming press whose job it is to inform us unwashed readers of so much juicy information. But alas! You have bigger, important interests at heart than us poor non-insiders, us unimportant masses, us pitiful ignorants. But I am sure you will tell us when you journalistic hands are unbound, and you come down from Mt. Olympus to bestow upon us a morsel of Truth.

Oh sure, it can't be an easy place for a top-tier site to be in. And I understand that there are some things that the manufacturers may not want news sites to print, and that is okay. Where we differ is on how to protect that information from the hungry eyes of the public. You do it, not by co-opting the enthusiast gaming press into your circle of trust, but by not telling it to them before you want them to know.

I do not think them turning into what is essentially an advertising service for the major manufacturers is they way to go. It is not good that any press get too close to those that they report on, and who have every reason to manipulate it. Joystiq suffered enough of a creditability blow some time back when one of their writers drank too much PR Kool-Aid that they fired the guy responsible. It couldn't have happened if they took more of a detached approach to the subject. The big sites like Gamespot and IGN may never be able to ween themselves off the sour PR milk, but gaming blogs shouldn't be chasing scoops anyway.

Let the NDAs lapse, and get back to the sacred task of shamelessly posting of every unsubstantiated rumor that hits your mailbox. That's all I'm asking.

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--John Harris at 01:39
Comment [ 10 ]

07 March 2007
Shivering Isles on Xbox Marketplace
The quick two month wait for Oblivion expansion Shivering Isles is over. The game will be released on March 27th for download through the 360's Xbox Live Marketplace, or as a physical, retail product on Windows. Gamespot says:
Shivering Isles will be available "everywhere" for the PC and downloadable through Xbox Live on March 27, according to executive producer Todd Howard. The PC edition of the expansion can be purchased at retailers for $30, while Xbox 360 players will have to download it from the Xbox Live Marketplace for 2400 Microsoft Points ($30).
I've been sceptical about Shivering Isles for a while, since it was announced that it was going download-only for the 360. This makes sense on some levels, but my assumption was that a digital product would cost less than a retail one. The PC gamers get to experience the joy of owning an actual product, complete with shiny, enticing jewel case, manual and disc and 360 owners get to pay the same price to spend extra time downloading it?

Then, to add insult to injury, the PC version will be reduced to $15 within a year and the 360 version will still be $30. Bethesda are infamous for squeezing every last cent of profit out of Oblivion, so this comes as no surprise. But, still, they could have at least knocked $5 off. Other than "because people will pay", Bethesda have no justification for the equal prices.

I disagree with Greg Costikyan's notion that the fixed price of online distribution is justifiable because games don't spoil, as it's counter-intuitive to the joy of trawling through rows of games and the sense of sheer euphoria when you do a bit of bargain hunting. Online distribution never has a sale, and is loathe to knocking a few bucks off its prices. These long-term issues will develop over time. The problem right now is that is that 360 owners are expected to pay the same for a delivery system that adds more hassle. Every megabyte of bandwidth, at least with the system of imposed monthly limits which proliferate almost all UK ISP's, costs the customer. There's an extra cost in time from downloading the game and, while I could probably get the game a few hours sooner if I obtained it through the Marketplace, I might just as easily spend those hours in luxury, waiting for the postman to deliver the game whilst using that precious bandwidth to play Worms online. Bethesda is, once again, using 360 owners. And we're all just going to sit back and let them do it.

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--Martin at 21:42
Comment [ 2 ]

Three things PlayStation Home is *not*
Sony finally got around to announcing a grand online plan and it's called PlayStation Home. Go watch the trailer, if you haven't already. I took a quick peek around at reactions and people are definitely irrationally excited, so someone's got to be the adult around here. Sober up, people.
  1. PlayStation Home is not final software - In fact, it is alpha software, so stop acting like this is what we will actually see launched in Fall 2007. Take a minute, remember your history, and go read this article from May 2000. Then ponder all the online goodness we've enjoyed on our PlayStation 2s for the past seven years:
    More than just a games console, the PlayStation 2 will offer support for DVD Video, be able to function as a set-top box, Internet access device and also feature a PC-Card interface through which it can be connected to broadband networks.

    It is through these broadband networks that SCEI plans to deliver games, audio and video content from 2001.
    Breathtaking, isn't it? Practically none of that happened. Not even close. There wasn't even a network adaptor until 2002, for crying out loud.

    History gives us no reason to believe Sony can bring its PlayStation Home dream to fruition, so just stop acting like the presentation today meant anything. It meant nothing.

    Do yourself, and all of us, a favor: take a "show me" stance toward anything Sony announces.

  2. PlayStation Home will not be simple - What I always liked about GameSpy was that I could fire it up, ping some Quake servers, and immediately jump into a game. The virtual reality interface on PlayStation Home looks like an awful way to get people together for matches or games. If I want to play a PS3 game online, the last thing I want to do is have to watch people fiddle with human-shaped cursors just to get to the "Start Game" location.

    My only experience with trying to arrange virtual people was with another Sony property, Everquest Online Adventures, and I hated trying to get a party together in person to make plans for a quest. Now, I'm sure World of Warcraft people have this all figured out, but Sony's just bull-headed enough to come up with their own ridiculous solution to a previously solved problem. (See: ATRAC.)

  3. PlayStation Home is not free - You heard me. It's only free in the sense that iTunes is free. It's actually a clever trap to bleed you dry of money.

    Understand this: Sony is going to charge money for virtual property at every turn. Want a rug for your virtual house? A chair? A different color of wall paint? Then you better open your wallet, buster.

    Microsoft pioneered downloadable content fees, and Sony will take it to completely new level. It will be glorious.
The gushing people I've seen today are amusing, if only because those will be the same people gnashing their teeth when they face the reality of PlayStation Home later this year.

Addendum: MattG is skeptical of PlayStation Home for other reasons. And Ronald Diemicke at MobyGames is thinking along the same lines as my #3, calling it a "glorified marketing space, more like a big mall designed to suck up money".

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--Matt Matthews at 19:53
Comment [ 11 ]

06 March 2007
Say hello to my little console, friend.
Mac Rumors reports some interesting strings from the newest version of iTunes:

'Are you sure you want to sync games? All existing games on the Apple TV XXX will be replaced with games from this iTunes library.' and 'Some of the games in your iTunes library were not copied to the Apple TV XXX because they cannot be played on this Apple TV.' are further confirmation of comments by PopCap VP Greg Canessa indicating that the Apple TV would indeed support games.

In the latest issue of PC Gamer, the top ten games of the year went something like, "WoW, Sims, Sims, something else that's not Madden, Sims, Sims, Sims." If AppleTV is at all OS X-like, it shouldn't be long until we're playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire 2 on our BMW of TiVos!!! Will Xbox care?

(This post in part to remind me to post on both PC Gamer's list versus the wacko top 100 list Matt posted earlier as well as to blog my wonderful first impresion of playing Tetris on my cell phone, which reminded me a lot of Amazing X-Ray Glasses from Sprint!.)


--ruffin at 23:50
Comment [ 2 ]

Microsoft's XNA Dream-Build-Play Contest
A week after flash-gamed-turned-real-game Alien Hominid HD was released on XBLA, Microsoft announce that they're running an XNA game design competition for budding developers. Coincidental? Probably not.

The way I see it, Alien Hominid HD has set a precedent. It's living proof that independent games developers can get ahead with Microsoft. While the game has been around since its Flash game prototype in 2002, the original console release in 2005 was virtually impossible to acquire in stores (I certainly didn't spot one) and this re-release on XBLA gives it the potential to reach a very significant audience, many of whom are more than likely prepared to drop 800 Microsoft points for it.

This ties in well with XBLA itself; it really needs more indie games. Josh over at Cathode Tan has an article up about what the XNA competition might mean for developers, and that's well worth a read, but this should also affect gamers. People are going on the record stating how digital distribution is becoming the only real way for independent developers and Microsoft should really be listening to this. Seriously listening, not just running a little competition for good PR.

Microsoft have people eating out of their hands right now when it comes to XBLA: a mere mention of the notion of porting some classic game over (no matter how much of an April Fools it's likely to turn out to be) is enough to satiate our lust for speculation. Clever independent games would be a godsend, certainly beating seemingly endless reams of arguably lousy retro titles, hastily updated with HD graphics. The mistake Microsoft are making with the XNA competition is saying how only one game will get released on XBLA. They should be more accommodating: it should be many games.

Imagine a year where something unique is released every other week. It would be incredible. Alien Hominid is a start, but it's an update of a game that's already been released twice. Original, new, independent games would be a great way forward. Quality isn't exactly an issue: if people are prepared to pay for Time Pilot and Root Beer Tapper they're probably willing to buy whatever Microsoft decide to sell. It would turn XBLA into a varied, interesting distribution platform instead of a retro dumping ground with the occasional decent title.

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--Martin at 20:52
Comment [ 2 ]

Submitting non-personal system information
After going through the latest World of Warcraft patch, a new screen with a cancel button on it popped up as part of the login process, reading, "Submitting non-personal system information." It was barely up long enough to read.

I imagine I've signed away much worse in the game's license, but why even bother letting me know? (Or have I simply missed this the first 2,138 times I've played?) What was that screen about? Gauging how much more eye candy could be in the next expansion?

Let me recommend this: If you up system requirements at all, up them everywhere, Blizzard. Force upgrades to play. Ultima Online's latest update -- and the non-trivial blowback from their saying that (in five years or so, mind you) they might eventually finally toss compatibility with the original client -- should be lesson enough. If Windows isn't going to update frequently enough to keep Intel in business, why not you?


--ruffin at 19:07
Comment [ 2 ]

05 March 2007
Well, that explains the Game Boy market, doesn't it?
MobyGames just posted this from a Game Developer Conference talk by Trip Hawkins:
Trip also talked about the overcrowded license market and how more original titles will encourage the growth of the industry. Trip also talked about the royalty fees that a major licensor imposed awhile back. For GameBoy games it was 4%, for Playstation it was about 7%, online stuff it was about 11%, and for mobile games it was about 50%. This type of abuse causes the quality of games to be lower and as a result, the consumer, the publisher and the developer all end up getting burned.
Seeing that fee structure, is it any surprise that more than 50% of the GBA library was
licensed games when I crunched the numbers over 3.5 years ago? I'm betting it's far, far higher now. Of course the PlayStation was also a dumping ground for junk, as was its successor.

How depressing.

Update: is also covering the Hawkins talk, and adds this bit:
He added that some larger publishers are too interested in playing safe, saving some direct criticism for the Electronic Arts, the company he originally founded. "They spent a lot of money tying up Tetris and gaining placement on the decks, but if that's the best we can think of [them?] then there is something very wrong." He said too many customers are simply being offered old games but in a second rate form.
I think Hawkins licensed this fiery old Costikyan rant regarding GDC 2003 changed a few words, and made it mobile-centric:
Year by year, budgets increase. Year by year, sales increase less. And year by year, the publishers become more conservative; at $3m a pop and a 3 year dev cycle, it's too risky to invest in any game that's--risky. Thus only sequels and licensed drivel get funded. -- Greg Costikyan, March 2003
Sequels, remakes, and licenses flood the game market. Now the same is happening game conference speeches. Where will the madness stop?

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--Matt Matthews at 15:36
Comment [ 2 ]

04 March 2007
Online game servers going dark all over
Almost exactly four years ago I warned this was coming. I said that one key difference between Twisted Metal Black: Online and SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs was the existence of a LAN mode in the former and not in the latter. Now more and more online games are shutting down and some game functionality will be lost forever.

The latest casualties are:
All will have no online functionality in the near future. As more services shut down with no penalty for the companies involved, it's bound to be more common in the future.

Which makes me wonder how much thought goes into these shutdowns. In particular, companies talk of cultivating online communities of fans and the economic advantages of having such groups identifying with a game and the company behind the game. Taking these ideas at face value, it must take some serious financial advantage to disrupt those communities.

Which means the communities are tiny. Of course, I knew that. Back when I tried to play Twisted Metal Black: Online in 2003, few people playing online. And when I played Outrun 2006: Coast 2 Coast recently, there wasn't even a single other player to be found online. I suspect the same is essentially true about MGS3 and Resident Evil Outbreak, in that the true number of people who will care is small enough to ignore.

Which leads me to wish that more games were like Daytona USA: CCE for the Sega Saturn and Netlink: player-to-player online modes. I believe that Ruffin and I could still play that game right now (as we once did, long distance across state lines) as it only depends on a Saturn, a game disc, a Netlink, and a phone line. I suppose with cell phones overtaking land lines, it might soon be difficult to do even that much. Ah well, I'm committed to being perpetually in the minority.

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--Matt Matthews at 21:55
Comment [ 6 ]

03 March 2007
What would make me buy a PS3?
Or, in some cases, just what I'd like to see in a console.
  1. Ripping of my PSOne and PS2 games to the hard drive for use with the new emulation software. As a concession to avoid piracy, I'd be happy to verify my ripped copy with the original disc once out of every 25 times I attempt play from the hard drive. Or something like that.
  2. PlayStation Network stocked with free demos of every PS3 game.
  3. PSN Store stocked with dozens of PSOne games, including rare or Japanese-only titles, playable on PS3 as well as PSP.
  4. Start putting smaller PS2 games up for sale on the PSN Store.
  5. And while we're at it, how about Sony sells PSP games and an emulator on the PSN?
  6. Improved image quality on PS2 and PSOne games with the new emulation software.
  7. Sleep mode, just like I have on the PSP.
  8. High quality upscaling of DVDs. Reportedly coming soon, but I want to hear about quality from users first.
  9. Movies I actually want available on demand. Some sort of movie service reported to be announced this coming week, but no word on the selection, or which studios outside of Sony's will be included.
  10. A screenshot feature in future games.
  11. User account webpages with online storage. Storage can be used for screenshots, save games, and some sort of blogging.
  12. A chocolate chip cookie.

The way Sony acts some days, I'm not even sure they could manage the cookie.

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--Matt Matthews at 22:49
Comment [ 7 ]

Notes: Payback (GBA), Gradius Collection (PSP)
While I'm working on Beyond Good & Evil (i.e. winner of this comments thread), I've picked up two new handheld games to pass the time.
  • Payback (GBA) - I am a sucker for oddball games, it's true. So when I saw Payback, a nearly-full-3D Grand Theft Auto clone for the Game Boy Advance, I was instantly intrigued. Regrettably, it was never released in North America, and Nintendo's rules prevent the publisher from shipping the international version to me directly.

    My first attempt to get it from someone who listed himself as being in Australia, where the game was published, netted me a package shipped directly from Hong Kong with -- you guessed it -- a cheap rip-off. That copy has been donated to academia for further study.

    A European friend arranged to purchase from the publisher on my behalf and forward the game to me here in the States, so now I have the real thing.

    I spent about an hour with it this afternoon, and it is really a fascinating clone of GTA. The pay phone missions start you off in Liberty City ... ahem ... I mean Freedom City. Running down a pedestrian leaves bloody tire tracks on the pavement. Missions involve the usual Point A to Point B to Point C mechanics. Practically the only familiar GTA hallmark I haven't seen is the line of Hare Krishnas in the park.

    The controls are a bit wonky. Be prepared to struggle with them a bit, but they'll grow on you. If there is a lot of gunplay later on, I suspect it will mean frustration. I should also mention that Liber--Freedom City is located on an island nation, so you'll be driving on the wrong side of the road.

    I enjoyed the time I dropped into the game and I suspect I'll pick it up again from time to time. However, it won't be an obsession.

  • Gradius Collection (PSP) - The recent Best Buy clearance netted me my first $5 PSP game, Gradius Collection. While I've played side-scrolling shmups before (like R-Type), I have never seen a Gradius game, either in an arcade or on a home system.

    The short of it is that I like what I've seen so far. Granted, I hated my first three games, because I had no idea what was going on, but now that I understand a bit more about what's going on I really enjoy it. Gradius and Gradius II are the games I've played the most and they're similar enough that the skills carry over, but the levels are different enough that I'm enjoying them independently.

    The options allow you to tune the difficulty, which is helpful for newbies like me. There are also options to view the game at the resolution offered in the arcade and in a stretched mode to use all the PSP screen.

    For $5, I'd buy just about any game. However, Gradius Collection is one that I'd've picked up at $15 had I known how much fun it could be.
That is all.

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--Matt Matthews at 21:58
Comment [ 4 ]

02 March 2007
Xbox is the new PlayStation
By now most of the videogame industry has realized that the Xbox 360 is the new PlayStation 2. What many have yet to comprehend, however, is that Sony is perfectly happy to let that happen.

Seeds of this Generation

Go back to the launch of the Xbox and GameCube back in 2001. The first console generation of the 21st century had completely launched and Sony was building its commanding lead. The seeds of our current generation -- Xbox 360, Wii, and PlayStation 3 -- were sown then and are just now beginning to bear fruit.
  • The original Xbox attracted developers with its easy-to-use tools and integrated online services. Despite the change in machine architecture and continuing subscription costs for consumers, the Xbox 360 is lauded for improving on the gold standard its predecessor set for developers and online consumers.

  • The GameCube played host to Nintendo's first party games, nontraditional games like Animal Crossing, and experimental controls like the Donkey Konga bongos and the Odama microphone. The Wii got a Zelda game at launch, packed in the crowd favorite Wii Sports, and would be nothing without its remarkable Wii controller.

  • The PlayStation 2 puzzled developers with its non-standard architecture and primitive toolchain, leaving them to make of it what they could. The PlayStation 3 and its Cell architecture are even more unusual than the PS2, and developers are striving to understand its strengths and limitations.
Sony's PlayStation 2 dominated that last generation, perhaps on the power of the PlayStation brand and its one year headstart. The PlayStation 2 was the console everyone owned, offering thousands of games, from dreck to art, from cross-platform million-sellers to unique third-party exclusives.

Microsoft covets that role for its Xbox 360, and it will have it. Sony is willingly giving up. Like the PlayStation 2 before, it will offer thousands of games, from dreck to art, from cross-platform million-sellers to unique third-party exclusives. Only, there won't be as many of that last group -- the unique third-party exclusives -- much to Microsoft's dismay.

Sony's Gambit: First-Party Power

This is Sony's vision for the PlayStation 3: a powerful multi-use system headlined by huge first-party exclusives, bolstered by big-name cross-platform titles. They want their first-party games to be to their console what the Spider-man movies have been to their movie business. They want to diminish the role of the cheaper, lesser games that plagued its PSOne and PlayStation 2. They want you to think premium cable, only for videogames.

From that perspective Sony's apparent indifference to exclusivity for games like Grand Theft Auto 4, Assassin's Creed, Virtua Fighter 5 makes a lot more sense. Sony expects publishers and developers to feel obligated to make those big games for PlayStation 3, along with other platforms. Indeed, to maximize profits, publishers will need to bring those games to several platforms, and the Wii isn't even in the running. Eventually developers will tame the Cell, out of necessity, and Sony will have its sufficient software base.

As the importance of third-party exclusives diminishes, and cross-platform games become the norm, the first-party offerings will be the key to attracting consumers. And that is Sony's ace.

Phil Harrison recently explained exactly this to The Guardian: "[Developing new titles in-house is] absolutely the strategy. When we launched the PlayStation, there were no accompanying games developed by Sony. When we launched the PlayStation 2, there was one: Fantavision, which, beautiful game though it was, was no game on which to launch a platform. But the PS3 will launch with more exclusive, high-quality games from our studios than we've ever done before."

As reported by Screen Digest in late February, Sony's internal studios have more than 2.5 times the manpower of Microsoft's studios. In fact, Sony has more studio staff than Nintendo and Microsoft combined. If cross-platform exclusives are taken for granted, then Sony is in a far stronger position than Microsoft to define its platform with unique software. Killzone 2, Warhawk, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune -- these are but the beginning for Sony and their stable of developers. Microsoft had its year to set the standard for next-generation games with the likes of Gears of War, but from this point forward Sony intends to define the standard for which everyone else strives. It is the quality Sony hopes to achieve with software, the exceptional experience that they intend to offer, that justifies the high price of entry that the PlayStation 3 commands.

Incidentally, Sony isn't shutting out smaller games on the PlayStation 3 altogether. Lesser games, by developers big and small, will find room not on store shelves but on Sony's PlayStation Network as low-cost downloads. Think of it as one more step toward Phil Harrison's dream of disc-less PlayStation 4. And as can happen on Xbox Live Arcade, developers will perform an end run around the big publishers, something they all want to do.

The Stakes

In about a year's time we should have an idea of whether Sony's plans are going to pay off. Sony's initial crop of big-budget first-party games should have had a chance with reviewers and consumers. Europe's reception of the PlayStation 3 will have been assessed, and the viability of a $600 console will have been determined. This has to be the year of the PlayStation 3, or Sony will have a grim five years burning money to support a product few people wanted.

The greatest risk right now is that frustrated third parties could balk at the abstruse Cell architecture and the Blu-Ray data transfer issues and start handing exclusives to Microsoft. The added Xbox 360 momentum could create the positive feedback loop that sold more than 100 million PlayStation 2 consoles. If that happens, Sony would have handed Microsoft the keys to the kingdom on a silver platter.

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--Matt Matthews at 05:39
Comment [ 9 ]

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