Monday, November 24, 2008

Lara's Back But Eidos Fumbled: Honesty is Such a Lonely Word Edition

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.

(Billy Joel)

Lara is back and I am happy. I have been playing Underworld since the release last week and think this is the best Tomb Raider since the first one. The environmental puzzles are great fun and not the too hard ones from later Tomb Raiders, the graphics are updated to exactly where they should be, and Lara's moves are updated and connecting me to Lara the way they did in the first one. She still shakes her head when I ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do, and I am duly impressed by the way she angrily brushes the side of her face when I rudely walk her into the foliage. Apparently, the critics don’t feel the same sense of nostalgia. Sure, bringing the identical Duke Nukem to Live Arcade justifies an 85, but roughly the same amount of time it took to build the Eiffel Tower to improve the experience and restore an icon justifies only the middle seventies. Or does it? The reviews are coming in mixed, and Metacritic, unsurprisingly is focusing on the lower ones.

Eidos, sadly lacking in experienced PR and weak in the product pipeline department, like most publishers knew the scores would be all over the board. Allegedly, they wanted to control the artificially and wrongly influential Metacritic, by timing the release of the bad reviews. There are two flaws in the strategy. First, Metacritic picks and chooses reviews like a four year old choosing M&Ms out of a bowl. The site happily skews a score in one direction or another, often ignoring reviewers included in aggregations on its own site. Second, Eidos was honest. All publishers manipulate retail promotion and review scores. They just don't talk about it.

I remember walking into EB years ago, before I joined Eidos, with a publisher who still thought EB promoted the games based on quality. She was in charge of the late, not so great GTE Interactive and had shipped Timeline the day before. The title was really expensive and somewhat of a break through in some regards. Tomb Raider was two and a half months from shipping.

"Hi, have you heard anything about Timeline?" I said, beginning my one act play.
"No, never heard of it." Considering my positioning in the store blocked his view of the box full of Timeline shelved behind me, the response was somewhat reasonable.
"How about Tomb Raider?" I prodded.
"Of course, it's amazing, they go this chick and she jumps and moves, can't wait for that one." Considering he was one of the recipients of a coffee mug and squishy ball from Eidos a week before, this response was reasonable as well.

It was a lot cheaper to buy counter guys then. They got squishy balls, mugs and shirts, managers were wined and dined at the EB shows and E3. Critics were in a whole other league. In those days junkets were not only permitted, they were expected. Game presentations would happen in Las Vegas, or on a cruise or something, with lots of liquor, free airfare and stuff I shouldn’t write about. This treatment started to be frowned upon in the late nineties, only to be transformed into after hours basketball games, happy hour meetings and of course, the ever present "cute PR chick." Kind of like Chicago in the thirties, everyone knew this was going on, but unlike Eidos last week, no one put it in a press release.

The market has evolved, a bit, but the only changes are the nature of the payoff. When it comes to dollars, many of the review sites employ carrots and sticks. The carrots are more obvious than the sticks. Did you ever notice the review scores for games tend to be higher on sites where their artwork is the background image for the page? This may give you cause to question the integrity of the review when you read it on the review site, unfortunately, the ad is not there when you see it on Metacritic. The whoring of review scores can lead to good things. If reviews weren't skewed by ad dollars, we wouldn't have unbiased sites like Giantbomb to read. The sticks are harder to find. A consumer may see an exceedingly low review on the site, but they may forget Atari sued a critic and may never even know another game's publisher stiffed the site when it came time to pay for the ads. All they say are inexplicably low review scores. This is not to say publishers are entirely innocent.

Publishers in all media time release of reviews. Sometimes the timing is based on content. Movie studios don't hold screenings if films are going to be bad. Book publishers hold back galleys, and game companies don't send out review copies. Other times marketing decisions drive the timing. If the review comes out too early, marketing may peak before the product is available. If all the good information and really cool screen shots are revealed in one magazine prior to release, the others may not even mention it – and the publisher can forget about getting a cover without a grant of exclusivity. By definition, exclusivity means the publication will be the first to reveal the information. The only way for a publisher to live up to its end of the bargain is to – gasp - ask others not to release reviews until the exclusive period is over. In the interest of timing and efficiency, they are willing to let the others have copies prior to the expiration of the exclusive period so other reviews can get out quickly. These copies are provided with the understanding the results will be kept confidential. It is actually all pretty innocent. Especially when you are sitting on a very good game.

Kotaku, who did not get any exclusives on Tomb Raider, got all up in arms at the suggestion, later stated to be untrue by Eidos, that Eidos' PR was holding by review scores to influence Metacritic. If true, shame on Eidos, this is bush league stuff. If Eidos truly wants to influence Metacritic scores it should do what the other publishers do to ensure high Metacritic. Buy ads, get critics in early, dole out exclusive content and get guaranties of 90 and above in exchange for exclusive content.

4000 Miles: Bragging Edition

I passed the 4,000 mile mark today with my trusty Nike +. I knew I was going to do it with this run, and I was excited to plug my iPod in to confirm my achievement. When I passed the last milestone, at 3,000, it was the highest category, I was certain I leveled to the highest class. When I plugged it in, I was taken back 22 years to Mount Fuji.

I spent the summer of my junior year of college on a management study tour of Japan. Six weeks in Tokyo living in a closet sized room, with a very convenient one piece bathroom sized just right to be packed with a twin in a Winnebago and touring factories. I have to admit the invention of the single piece of hardware to serve as a sink faucet and shower head was ingenious. My tour was to be evidenced by a research paper comparing and contrasting unions in Japan and America. I made sure I understood the distinctions in the culture by researching various model bars and all you can drink clubs on a nightly basis, guarantying a very Japanese hangover the following morning.

One night, I and a couple friends took a break from partying to climb Mount Fuji. Someone told us it was cool to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain. Having seen many sunrises from the bottom of Ropongi, I figured this could be an improvement. Before you start to think the climb is connected to completing my 4000'th mile by athleticism, I must explain, climbing mount fuji is much more like riding a Segway through Venice Beach than conquering Kilimanjaro. We heard it would be cold, so we put on a couple of layers of clothes, stocked up on flasks of Whiskey and jumped on the bus to the foot of the mountain. A trailhead as wide about as wide as a ten lane freeway wound its way from the parking lot up the side of the mountain. We stopped at the small stand and bought our walking sticks and passed on the water bottles. This was the first of many stands up the mountain where you could buy water and burn an imprint into your walking stick which either indicated the height you achieved on the mountain or some kind of cruel commentary on your decision to hike up a mountain in the dark. I couldn't tell, it was Japanese.

We made it up to the first checkpoint and proudly presented our sticks for burning. It think the altitude was 50 meters. I noticed the bottles of water we did not want to carry were more 500 yen more expensive than at the bottom. We were moving strong and walking up the well defined path, holding our place in the crowd. It was not quite as crowded as a New York sidewalk, but it would not take many more people to get there. As we passed the second and third checkpoints we started to get cold, and tired. Whiskey was not the best idea as it was clearly contributing to both. By the time we got to the half way point, the water was a good 5,000 yen more than it was at the bottom and we were regularly being passed by little old ladies who were 85 years old if they were a day.

So how does Mount Fuli tie to running? When I plugged in today I noticed 4,000 was no longer the highest level. Nike's new expansion pack to the achievements all the way up to 10,000 and there were half a dozen people in the category. I am sure 4 of them are over 85.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Midway's Problems Are Not Unreal: The Press Creates Another Story Edition

This morning the interwebs lit up with headlines like this: "Unreal Engine 3 Fingered in Midway's Struggles" promoting articles tying Midway's problems to UE3. From the headlines I thought this was a Midway finger pointing article. This would almost seem plausible if Midway had a single profitable year since 1999, a year when UE3 was a but a glimmer in Epic's collective shorts. In reality, Midway was not finger pointing. No one was. Much like Detroit's auto industry, Midway's problems stem not from technology, but pure and simple bad management. In fact, the very article used as a foundation start the kindle the anti UE3 fire says exactly that. The game journalists who picked it up either decided not read the whole thing - maybe a habit they picked up from reviewing games- or they decided flowery prose is more fun than the truth.

The original story appeared in Daily Variety from Ben Fritz. He quite accurately wrote:

To find out, I spoke to several ex-employees. And while there were lots of little things, one issue popped up again and again: Midway's decision to license Unreal Engine and use it for ALL its games.

Our gaming journalist brethren either read that part and moved on, or simply engaged in an extended game of telephone, copying each other's postings, something many of us experienced before. They failed to look at the next paragraph:

"The mistake we made was, instead of just taking the base Unreal 3 engine that 'Gears of War' was made on and building games off of that, we let our tech and product development guys try to really modify the engine to add all these diff things," one ex-employee told me. "It was a ton of new technology which they just weren’t capable of doing. It put all the games way behind schedule."

Ben didn't blame Epic, Midway didn't blame Epic, so why is everyone else is blaming Epic? The employee quoted in the article clearly explained it was Midway's decision to modify the code base, not the engine itself that led to problems. Not a big surprise. UE3 is quite polarizing. Developers either love it or hate it. The folks who try to reengineer it tend to hate it - especially around the time of new code drops. These are the folks who buy a boat and complain about how poorly it handles on the freeway. The folks who build within the code base, or build accessions on top of the existing technology love it - even around the time of new code drops. This concept is nothing new. If you use a technology or anything for that matter, for its intended purpose, it works. If you ask it to do something it can't do, much like my 13 year old son, it will rebel in frustration.

Midway's problems don't stem from the Unreal engine. They stem from management's failure to identify the problems arising from its dictate that every Midway game would be built on Unreal. This is a great strategy if every game you are building is an FPS or over the shoulder shooter, or if the teams tasked with expanding the functionality were experienced with the technology and working in concert. Unfortunately management was either not being told what was going on, or chose not to listen. Unlike the other publishers who also suffered delays moving to this generation, Midway took a very, very long time to respond to technology issues. Couple this with a conscious decision by prior management not to work with external developers and not to exploit a rich library of beloved IP or build on the rays of sunshine in the catalogue like million plus selling Rampage for the Wii, and the company will find itself in trouble.

The good news is the company woke up and acknowledged the shortcomings. Management has been changed from the top down, a decent old school product made it out the door, and they are supporting the release of future products. The articles more correctly should say, "Midway identified what went wrong and hopes they turned the corner: and Epic had nothing to do with it."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Brash, We Hardly Knew You: RIP Edition

This just in, hardcore gaming publication Daily Variety is reporting Brash has shut its doors. While it would be fun to make some "Brash and Burn" quips, if true, the high profile flame out will make it harder on all of us and perhaps set external financing efforts back a bit. It really would have been better for us all if it worked.

Fortunately, even though stock prices for other publishers are down, sales appear strong and the closure, if true, seems to be a reflection of poor execution compounded by bad business decisions, and not the industry.

In other news, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Hooray for Harmonix: Everyone's Happy Edition

At the top of the last post I said I wanted to write something happy and good. And I do, and now I can. One of the best things I can say is too many great games came out to leave time to write a post. I'm in the business because I love games, and I purchased every major release in the last few months, logging countless hours in everything from Dead Space, to Mirror's Edge yesterday. Many of these games couldn't happen on the last generation of console, but one in particular could, and that's the good thing I am writing about.

Viacom's recent public filings included a statement indicating additional payments would be made to the Harmonix founders. Significant additional payments would be made to Harmonix founders. While admittedly seething with envy, I am truly excited to see the payments being made. Our history is littered with mega payments for "the greatest developer" in the world which later turned out to be overpayments for news events. The mega acquisitions, more often than not, resulted in dissolution of the thing the publisher acquired and the corresponding loss of the developer's spirit. The very thing the publisher tried to own. John Riccitiello spoke to this point at DICE last year and acknowledged EA's is shortcomings in the past and said it is striving to change the culture. Time will tell, but what about the others? The boys at Infinity Ward don't seem so happy. At the other end of the spectrum as those developers who got the "You know we can pay you the royalties we owe you, or we can call it an acquisition and you can save all those taxes" deal (I wish you all were in the room to hear Diego Angel's reaction that suggestion.). These deals turn into publisher ammunition in acquisition discussions leaving developers to constantly wonder "where was I when the stupid money was being spent."

The Harmonix announcement is so great because it shows Viacom not only got exactly what it paid for, it got more. The deal was drafted in a manner to compensate the developer when products did better than anticipated. In case that was not enough encouragement, Viacom left the company alone to do what they do best. Left to its own devices without publisher interference, cultural indoctrination and scores of publisher ground troops, Harmonix followed its Guitar Hero mega hit with its Rock Band Mega Hit. Now for the cool part. Rather than milking the franchise and forcing Harmonix to grow a dozen teams in all directions until the property ends with "Rock Band Babies," Viacom supported Harmonix in its pursuit of Beatles music for a new product. How cool is that? Just in case we have not reached the pinnacle of coolness, rather than challenging the additional payment Viacom made it, and welcomed it with the following statment:

"We may not have anticipated the payment would be that high, but it's based on what they have achieved,'' Viacom spokeswoman Kelly McAndrew commented to Bloomberg. "If they are making more money for us and we have to give a little back, that's OK."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Eurogamer has Multiple Personality Disorder: Sybil Edition

I really, really, really want to write something positive. There are a lot of good things about the game business, even in these times of layoffs and economic hardship. But I am more motivated to rant about things that really bug me than things that are going along swimmingly. One of these triggers just occurred in connection with Legendary, which in the interest of full disclosure, I helped to place with publishers . . . twice - that's another story.

A couple weeks ago the folks at Spark Unlimited were happy see their hard work was being recognized in the September 2, 2008 preview on Eurogamer which said:

Instead it focuses all of its resources into doing one thing: providing really good, entertaining, run-and-gun gaming. Stripping away the various complex systems and ideas which have accreted on the FPS genre since the days of Doom, Legendary instead focuses on using the power of modern hardware to increase its scale. In part, this means putting plenty of creatures (dozens, in some cases) into your encounters, recalling the frantic energy of Doom itself. It also, however, means really turning up the scale to epic levels in other ways. . . .

We ended our tour of duty pretty satisfied with the excellent shotgun and scoped assault rifle combo we'd picked up, but there are presumably plenty more choices to be found later in the game. . . .

The scale, as mentioned, is impressive, and enemy animations aren't half bad either. You also flay skin and flesh off your bestial foes as you pepper them with small arms fire, which is a "nice" touch (for some very unusual definitions of the word "nice".) . . .

Legendary was looking remarkably polished when we saw it, with no major outstanding bugs evident in the 360 version apart from some stuttering in the cut-scenes. That's a pretty good sign for a polished launch for the game, which we're expecting to appear on 360, PS3 and PC simultaneously in October or November. It's unlikely to set the world on fire (literally or metaphorically), but for straightforward, well-executed FPS action that's perfect for a half-hour stress-relieving blast, it's looking like you could do a hell of a lot worse this autumn.

Not exactly the verbal blowjob given to a Gears 2 or Fallout 3, but as a first installment of a franchise, it didn't merit that type of praise. This preview was followed by the Eurogamer Germany's review which said:

Had he not so uncommon and would Bulli, which is the way forward, a few liberties here and there present, it would be more. But even as friends action should take a look at Legendary throw. They are at least accustomed to that in such a plant a coherent story a rare and especially part is completely optional. And they also know that New York is destroyed. Always.

That didn't really make sense to me either, it is German run through Google's best impression of a Babble fish. The important point is the review ended with an award of a 7 out of 10. Again, not the best rating but probably within the range of other reviews, like OXM, which scored the title 10 points higher than its Dead Space review with a 75.

This is why we were all so surprised to see Eurogamer follow its positive review and sister site's review with a score of a 2 out of 10. That's right, 2 out of 10. Dan Whitehead, the author who takes great joy in his use of flowery language wrote:

Legendary is the gaming equivalent of cheap supermarket own-brand beans, but instead of costing eleven pence it costs the same as a prime steak cooked by a top chef. It's a bad, bad game. One of the worst I've played on this generation of consoles, in fact. In that regard, at least, the title is surprisingly accurate.

It kind of makes me wonder whether he knows how he skewed the metacritic score and how many publishers rely on this score to give publishers their next job. Sure, it is not his fault, but as Spiderman teaches, with great power comes great responsibility. In this case, he not only shirked his responsibility to the developer, but to his readers, his publication, and his own credibility. Here is the site's scoring policy for granting a 2:

Avoid at all costs - this is less entertaining than setting fire to a ten-pound note. You'll have barely ever seen a 2/10 on EG - and for very good reason. A game this bad almost certainly won't reach our eyes, because publishers generally know better than to send games of this standard to us in the first place. In many cases these are your typical "straight to budget" titles that no sane publisher would try and release at full price, and they certainly wouldn't want us to rip them to shreds in public.

What you're facing here is a game with appalling generic visuals built around an awful design, cursed with cretinous AI, brain-frying audio and controls that feel like they've been designed to upset people or boost sales of replacement game pads. It could just be that the game is just so hideously old fashioned that someone has released the game by mistake. Who knows what goes through the minds of people who feel the need to try and sell crap? Pity them, and pity the fools that stock it and more so the morons that end up buying it without checking first.

I am not going to argue against the score relative to the scores, because we see inflation and disparity with all games. The aforementioned Dead Space ranges from a 65 to a 100 among different publications. I am solely considering the disparity of scores within a single publication. It smacks of a personal issue. It would seem Mr. Whitehead has a personal issue with either Atari, Spark, or both. Maybe he has no issue, but was having a bad day with no dog to kick. Perhaps he was venting against a publisher without the pipeline, and marketing dollars of EA and Activision. Whatever the reason, I am hard put to find it in the game itself. So to Mr. Whitehead, I say shame on you.

As for Legendary, while game has garnered some 80's from reputable sources which will be published soon, I have no more delusions of the game receiving a 100 than I do of the next Adam Sandler mega hit getting a 10 out of 10. The fact the game was completed at all is a testament to the dedication of the team and their belief in the property. While the dedication is impressive, it is no reason to buy the game. You should buy the game because it really is fun. It does what a game is supposed to do. Eurogamer said in the preview, and quite possibly in German.

I am not advocating mediocrity because the reviews are not an indication of mediocrity. They are an indication of the critics opinion which remain out of touch with the consumer. This game happens to be scoring from many critics in the range of games selling in the millions of units. Unfortunately, it's US publisher did not have the strength to garner 50 reviews in this crowded market. The critics lack of awareness, combined with the power assigned by publishers creates an untenable situation.

C'mon publishers, wake up and realize this guy's words are of no value. There is no correlation between metacritic scores and sales. As Robin Kaminsky pointed out at DICE the sales correlation is with scores coupled with marketing. You will note, titles with strong marketing programs get higher metacritic scores than titles without a program. I am not insinuating anything here, it could just be a case of the squeaky wheel getting the oil. More marketing means more awareness, means more reviews, means better scores. You can take this a million different places. This is not the time or place for me to do it. All I am saying is there is no reason for you to pay attention to a guy who feels empowered by diminishing the efforts of the others at the expense of credibility and the integrity of his own site.

Don't take my word for it, I am an interested party, try the game.

Check it Out: Cliffy B in the New Yorker Edition

In probably the first and last article to mention CliffyB, Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore in the same paragraph as Gears of War, the New Yorker published a great piece about Cliffy, Epic and Gears. Really solid mainstream coverage without calling them dorks.

Check it out