By Chris Sorensen - Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 0 Comments
Game over Hollywood
From Tomb Raider to Resident Evil, video games have made their mark on Hollywood. But so far Hollywood has been unable to return the favour, despite several high-profile attempts. The latest casualty is a studio that film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer set up in partnership with MTV six years ago. The venture is being quietly shuttered after failing to produce a single title, according to a recent report by online news site Gamespot. Nor is Bruckheimer the only Hollywood big shot to fail to make a dent in the booming $65-billion industry. Steven Spielberg signed an deal with Electronic Arts in 2005 that yielded one non-blockbuster game—a puzzle game called Boom Blox. Director Zack Snyder signed a separate agreement with EA in 2008 to make three games—none of which have materialized, which is surprising, some say, given Snyder’s CGI-heavy action film 300, which critics often compared to a video game.
By The Associated Press - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 11:31 PM - 0 Comments
TOKYO – Nintendo President Satoru Iwata promised Thursday the struggling Japanese video-game maker will…
TOKYO – Nintendo President Satoru Iwata promised Thursday the struggling Japanese video-game maker will get back into operating profitability next fiscal year at more than 100 billion yen ($1 billion), while ruling out price cuts for the new Wii U home console to boost sales.
Iwata, speaking at a Tokyo hotel to investors and reporters a day after earnings were released, acknowledged the sales momentum for the Wii U, as well as the 3DS hand-held game machine, had run out of steam during the key year-end shopping season, especially in the U.S.
But he said no price cuts were in the works. Price cuts are common in the gaming industry to woo buyers to products, but the move can backfire by trimming revenue. The Wii U now sells for about $300 in the U.S. and 25,000 yen in Japan.
“We are already offering it at a good price,” he said.
But he acknowledged more work was needed to have consumers understand the Wii U, which went on sale globally late last year, as well as producing more game software to draw buyers.
All game machines have suffered in recent years from the advent of smartphones and other mobile devices that have become more sophisticated and offer games and other forms of entertainment.
But he said he was confident of the months ahead and said that Nintendo was preparing more game software, including those developed in-house, toward the end of this year.
Kyoto-based Nintendo, which makes Super Mario and Pokemon games, lowered its full year sales forecast Wednesday to 670 billion yen ($7.4 billion) from 810 billion yen ($8.9 billion).
It also acknowledged it was going to sell fewer Wii U consoles for the fiscal year through March than its previous projection. The Wii U has a touch-screen tablet controller called GamePad and a TV-watching feature called TVii.
The company forecasts it will sell 4 million Wii U consoles for the current fiscal year, ending March 31, down from its earlier estimate of 5.5 million units. The Wii U, which went on sale late last year, was the first major new game console to arrive in stores in years.
Nintendo, also behind the Donkey Kong and Zelda games, lowered its full year sales forecast for Wii U game software units to 16 million from 24 million.
Iwata said last year holiday sales quickly dissipated in the U.S. and some European nations, including Great Britain, the key market. He said the U.S. home console sales were the worst for Nintendo in nearly a decade.
He said Nintendo needs hit games to push console sales, and the company remains confident Wii U will prove more popular with time.
“The chicken-and-game problem has not been solved,” he said of the need for both game software and machine hardware.
The company returned to net profit for the April-December period from deep losses the previous year, but that was due to a perk from a weaker yen, which helps Japanese exporters like Nintendo.
Nintendo sank into a loss the previous fiscal year largely because of price cuts for its hand-held 3DS game machine, which shows three-dimensional imagery without special glasses. That machine is also struggling in most global markets.
Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s iconic game designer, said what was missing were games for the Wii U that made its appeal clear. The progress in smartphones has also posed a challenge for Nintendo, he said.
“People have to try it to see it is fun,” Miyamoto said of Wii U.
By Chris Sorensen - Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 8:10 AM - 0 Comments
Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are struggling to reinvent video games as touchscreens and tablets take over the living room
Nintendo’s 2006 launch of the Wii console marked a new era for video games. With its innovative motion-sensing controllers, used to mimic the swing of a tennis racquet or golf club, the $250 Wii immediately struck a chord with gamers and non-gamers alike. Amazon sold out of its initial stock of sleek, white Wii consoles in just seven minutes.
The Wii’s unexpected success catapulted third-ranked Nintendo to the top of the video game industry, ahead of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3—both of which are more powerful (and more expensive) machines. More importantly, it suggested a much wider potential market for game consoles beyond basement-dwelling teenagers.
But the renaissance has proved short-lived. Console sales have declined dramatically in recent years as existing systems grow long in the tooth. Nintendo posted a loss of $530 million this year, its first since 1981. And competition from tablets and smartphones, with their cheap, downloadable games, threatens to steal away millions of casual gamers. “Tablets and smartphones are the black hole of the consumer electronics industry right now, sucking the growth out of everything else,” says Kaan Yigit, the president of Toronto’s Solutions Research Group, a consumer research firm. “The growth rates we saw after Wii first came out are but a distant memory.”
By The Associated Press - Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 7:57 PM - 0 Comments
NEW YORK, N.Y. – In the six years since the last major video game…
NEW YORK, N.Y. – In the six years since the last major video game system launched, Apple unveiled the iPhone and the iPad, “Angry Birds” invaded smartphones and Facebook reached a billion users. In the process, scores of video game consoles were left to languish in living rooms alongside dusty VCRs and disc players.
On Sunday, Nintendo Co. is launching the Wii U, a game machine designed to appeal both to the original Wii’s casual audience and the hardcore gamers who skip work to be among the first to play the latest “Call of Duty” release. Just like the Wii U’s predecessor, the Wii, which has sold nearly 100 million units worldwide since 2006, the new console’s intended audience “truly is 5 to 95,” says Reggie Fils-Aime, the president of Nintendo of America, the Japanese company’s U.S. arm.
But the Wii U arrives in a new world. Video game console sales have been falling, largely because it’s been so long since a new system has launched. Most people who wanted an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or a Wii already have one. Another reason: People in the broad 5-to-95 age range have shifted their attention to games on Facebook, tablet computers and mobile phones.
U.S. video game sales last month, including hardware, software and accessories, totalled $755.5 million, according to the research firm NPD Group. In October 2007, the figure stood at $1.1 billion.
The Wii U is likely to do well during the holiday shopping season, analysts believe —so well that shoppers may see shortages. But the surge could peter out in 2013. The Wii U is not expected to be the juggernaut that the Wii was in its heyday, according to research firm IHS iSuppli. The Wii outsold its competitors, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, in its first four years on sale, logging some 79 million units by the end of 2010. By comparison, IHS expects the Wii U to sell 56.7 million in its first four years.
In the age of a million gadgets and lean wallets, the storied game company faces a new challenge: convincing people that they need a new video game system rather than, say, a new iPad.
The Wii U, which starts at $300, isn’t lacking in appeal. It allows for “asymmetrical game play,” meaning two people playing the same game can have entirely different experiences depending on whether they use a new tablet-like controller called the GamePad or the traditional Wii remote. The GamePad can also be used to play games without using a TV set, as you would on a regular tablet. And it serves as a fancy remote controller to navigate a TV-watching feature called TVii, which will be available in December.
Nintendo, known for iconic game characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda, is expected to sell the consoles quickly in the weeks leading up to the holidays. After all, it’s been six long years and sons, daughters, brothers and sisters are demanding presents. GameStop Corp., the world’s No. 1 video game retailer, said last week that advance orders sold out and it has nearly 500,000 people on its Wii U waitlist.
Even so, it’s a “very, very crowded space in consumer electronics” this holiday season, notes Ben Bajarin, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies who covers gaming.
Apple’s duo of iPads, the full-size model and a smaller version called the Mini, will be competing for shoppers’ attention. Not to be outdone, Amazon.com Inc. has launched a trove of Kindle tablets and e-readers in time for the holidays. These range from the Paperwhite, a touch-screen e-reader, to the Kindle Fire HD, which features a colour screen and can work with a cellular data plan. Then there are the new laptops and cheaper, thinner “ultrabooks” featuring Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system —not to mention smartphones from Apple Inc., Samsung and other manufacturers.
“Nintendo has to be a cut above the noise here,” Bajarin says.
The Wii U is the first major game console to launch in years, but in some ways Nintendo is merely catching up with the HD trend. Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. began selling their own powerful, high-definition consoles six and seven years ago, respectively. Both Sony and Microsoft are expected to unveil new game consoles in 2013.
Baird analyst Colin Sebastian thinks the question is not how well the Wii U will do during the holidays, but how it will fare three and six months later.
Gaming has changed significantly in the past six years, especially when it comes to the type of mass-audience experiences that serve as Nintendo’s bread and butter. Zynga Inc., the online game company behind Facebook games such as “FarmVille” and “Texas HoldEm Poker,” was founded in 2007. The first “Angry Birds” game, that addictive, quirky distraction that has players flinging cartoon birds at structures hiding smug green pigs launched in late 2009. The first iPad, of course, came out in 2010 —three years after the first iPhone.
Fils-Aime acknowledges that Nintendo competes in the broad entertainment landscape, “minute-by-minute,” for consumers’ time.
“That’s true today and that was true 20 years ago,” he says, adding that Nintendo’s challenge is communicating to people “what is so fun and appealing about the new system.”
Analysts expect Wii U sales to be brisk over the holidays. Nintendo’s loyal —some would say, fanatical— fan base has been placing advance orders and will likely keep the systems flying off store shelves well into next year. The classic Mario and Zelda games are a huge part of the appeal, since they can’t be played on any gaming system but Nintendo’s.
Research firm IHS iSuppli estimates that by the end of the year, people will have snapped up 3.5 million Wii U consoles worldwide, compared with 3.1 million Wii units in the same period through the end of 2006.
After the Wii went on sale, shortages persisted for months. Stores faced long lines of shoppers trying to get their hands on a Wii as late as July 2007, more than seven months after the system’s launch.
Though supply constraints are expected this time around, Fils-Aime says Nintendo will have more hardware available in the Americas than it had for the Wii’s initial months on the market. The company says it will also replenish retailers more frequently than it did six years ago.
An initial sell-out doesn’t mean the Wii U will be successful over the long term, IHS notes, citing its estimate that the Wii U won’t match the Wii’s sales over time.
Bajarin believes it’s going to take “a little bit of time” for the Wii U’s dual-screen gaming concept to sink in with people. If it proves popular, Nintendo could see even more competition at its hands.
“Technologically, it’s not a leap of the imagination to see Apple, Google, Microsoft do something like this,” he says.
By Emily Senger - Friday, November 9, 2012 at 10:27 AM - 0 Comments
Seven members of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 have been punished after they…
Seven members of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 have been punished after they consulted on the video game Medal of Honor, says a report from CBS News.
The report, from national security correspondent David Martin, says that the men worked for two days as paid consultants for video game company Electronic Arts and it says they allegedly used classified information in their consulting.
Another report from AP says that the SEALs are in trouble for not asking permission for the consulting gig, and then for showing specially designed combat equipment to game producers.
One of those involved was part of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, Martin reports. All men reportedly remain in active duty and their punishment included a letter of reprimand and a financial penalty.
Medal of Honor Warfighter was released on Oct. 23 and marketing used to promote the game boasts its authenticity. “For the first time in Medal of Honor, we’re consulting closely with not only Tier 1 Operators from the U.S. but also Tier 1 Operators from around the globe including the Polish GROM, the Australian SASR, the German KSK and more,” reads the game website.
By Peter Nowak - Monday, July 16, 2012 at 11:55 AM - 0 Comments
If there’s one fact that crystallized a little more last week, it’s that the video game industry is set for some major disruption. Ouya, an Android-running set-top box that is looking for investment via crowd-sourced funding site Kickstarter, made a big splash on Tuesday. The attention came partly because Kickstarter projects are all the rage these days, but also because there is a definite appetite for just the sort of disruption Ouya is promising. The fact that the effort hit its $1million funding goal in no time indicates just how badly the gaming public wants something new.
The frustration was most effectively articulated by Destructoid reviews editor Jim Sterling in his latest video rant, which he posted a day before Ouya hit Kickstarter. To summarize, Sterling thinks video game consoles – primarily the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – have become “crap PCs” that ultimately defeat their entire purpose. Virtually every console game now requires multiple log-ins, upfront installation, frequent downloadable updates and complicated – and annoying – digital rights management that limits how the game and its assorted content can be used. Whereas once upon a time a person could pop a disc (or cartridge) into the machine and be off to the races in seconds, now there’s a whole slew of hoops to jump through before the action starts.
By Emma Teitel - Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 10:27 AM - 0 Comments
Online anonymity breeds harassment and contempt for female video gamers
When Lianne Papp started playing shooter games like Counter-Strike online 12 years ago with complete strangers, she noticed something immediately: not only were the majority of those strangers men, but they really didn’t like playing with women. The 27-year-old game developer from Edmonton lists “Show me your t–s,” “I’ve got something for you to sit on” and the more traditional “Make me a sandwich” among the sexist remarks and obscenities she’s received as she played on the web. “Online gaming is plagued with juvenile gamers who sling insults at everyone they can,” she says, “but the harassment women have to deal with is seemingly worse.”
Papp, who now lives in Texas, is one of thousands of women shooting people and blowing up buildings in virtual video games. According to York University technology professor Jennifer Jenson, women make up 20 to 30 per cent of players on the wildly popular World of Warcraft, yet they’re still treated like unwanted outsiders. In her recent virtual-gaming behaviour study with the U.S.-based research group SRI International, “almost every one of them had experienced harassment online.”
That doesn’t mean they’re standing—or sitting—idly by. A number of creative websites have sprung up to combat the barrage of sexist and perverted messages. One in particular, www.fatuglyorslutty.com (named after the most frequent insults received by one of its founders), allows female gamers to submit their most offensive slurs. Co-founder Jon Rosebaugh, 28, of San Francisco, says it’s gone from a few hits in January 2011 to tens of thousands a month. “At first we thought it was going to be a joke site, but then people noticed and started to say, ‘This is my experience.’ ”
By Jason Kirby - Monday, May 14, 2012 at 11:35 AM - 0 Comments
Our semi-regular roundup of findings from the world of academia
British Columbia: Older women who perform physical exercises like lifting weights may be able to slow the onset of dementia, according to researchers at the Univeristy of British Columbia. After studying women aged 70 to 80 who were divided into three exercise groups—balance training, aerobics and resistance training—those in the latter group showed “significant” cognitive improvement.
Alberta: The way consumers respond to good or bad service or products comes down to whether they are pleasure seekers or pain avoiders, according to research from the University of Alberta. Pleasure seekers are hurt more when a product doesn’t work well, but also get more joy out of positive consumer experiences. Pain avoiders, on the other hand, don’t take it so badly when a product or service is poor, but they don’t enjoy good consumer experiences as much, either.
Ontario: Researchers at the University of Toronto have found that after playing action video games, even for brief periods, people experience changes in their brain activity and improved visual attention. The results arose from brainwave tests on subjects who had never played video games before.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at 4:42 PM - 0 Comments
According to Kotaku, which cited inside sources, the next console is code-named Orbis and will be released for the holiday season of 2013. More importantly, the device will lock new games to a PlayStation Network account, thereby rendering them useless to anyone other than the initial buyer.
Sony has a history of trying to lock down its stuff, from copy-protected CDs to proprietary memory cards, which is why many are taking the rumour seriously.
It’s no secret the video game industry hates used games. When chains such as Gamestop/EB Games sell a customer a used game, publishers don’t see a nickel. What makes the studios especially angry is that they spend millions marketing their products, yet the retailers devote more floor space to used games. It’s the free-ride argument.
By Peter Nowak - Friday, March 9, 2012 at 3:39 PM - 0 Comments
If you follow tech news at all, you know by now that the big news out of the Apple event in San Francisco on Wednesday was the announcement of the new iPad. Rather than going with iPad 3 or iPad HD, as many observers expected, Apple went with just the plain, simple “iPad,” which is the name of the original–since-retired–tablet.
The new just-iPad features some beefed-up specs, like a faster processor and wireless connection, as well as better graphics through its “retina display.” I’ll have more coverage next week, closer to launch.
Alas, there was no iTV–I must admit to being a little disappointed–although there was a new Apple TV, or another iteration of the small $100 box that connects to your flat panel and lets you rent movies and shows from iTunes, as well as stream media from other devices. Is this device a stop-gap until the long-awaited iTV arrives?
As usual, Apple brought some app developers up on stage to show off the capabilities of its latest iPad. One such developer was Jim Shelton, game design director for Namco Bandai Games America, who demoed Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy, a new game coming to the iPad at the end of March. The improved processing power and graphics hold special appeal to game developers, so I had a quick chat with Shelton after the event. Here’s how it went:
How does the retina display improve your capability to create games for the iPad?
There are a lot of tricks you do in graphics to try and hide the pixels that are there. We spend a lot of horsepower just trying to hide the fact that there are pixels whenever you try to make something realistic or even stylized. One of the things the retina display allows us to do is, because those pixels are so small, they’re already hidden for us, so we can take that horsepower that is usually used to cover it up and apply it to the gameplay. So when we have this horsepower, we have terrain way off in the distance or small, minute details, all these things would often get lost because you couldn’t see them anyway. If you’ve got details smaller than a pixel on a regular display, it’s lost. Here those extra pixels help make every little thing we shove into the game (noticeable).
What are the advantages and disadvantages of developing for iOS?
The great thing about iOS is that the devices always deliver a nice experience on nice hardware, with power. That’s mainly it. There aren’t really any disadvantages.
Are there any disadvantages in developing for other platforms? It’s often said Android is very fractured with its many versions, so it’s hard to develop for.
Having a platform that has few variations, yeah it can certainly be helpful. We’ve done well in managing a lot of different devices, different hardware specs, so we’re pretty experienced in doing that, but it’s always nice when we can focus on one or two flagship platforms and really make them shine.
Is it hard to develop games for touchscreens?
It just requires a different mindset. You have to understand that you’re not developing for something that has buttons or those kinds of controls. You really have to look at it sort of in a unique way and say, ‘What are the strengths [of the touch screen]?’ and focus on them. The key to dealing with limitations is pushing against them. That’s not to say the touch screen is a limit, but it’s a particular way to access a game so you try to build as much as you can around that. With Air Supremacy, we have the touch screen, accelerometer controls and some casual controls as well. In simulator mode, you have full control of that jet. It’s something you really don’t see in other platforms. You can control pitch and yaw, you can roll your plane. You can really fly with precise controls.
Is there an appeal to developing for the iPad because of its larger install base among tablets?
It doesn’t hurt. I can’t really speak to sales numbers but obviously if you have a lot of people out there using the devices and those devices perform very well, it really helps.
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 4:41 PM - 0 Comments
Will there ever be a Call of Duty: Seniors’ Edition? It’s a question I found myself asking after speaking with a CTV reporter the other day.
The reporter was working on a story about a recent study that involved World of Warcraft and senior citizens. According to the study’s co-author, Jason Allaire at North Carolina State University, “People who played ‘World of Warcraft’ versus those who did not play experienced an increase in cognitive ability, particularly older adults who performed very poorly in our first testing session.” In other words, World of Warcraft–and video games in general—may be good for older people. Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Friday, February 24, 2012 at 11:31 AM - 0 Comments
Jennifer Hepler, a writer of video game plot and dialogue for the Canadian studio BioWare, has broken the rules of her industry. Sorting out the specific transgressions involved in this controversy has become needlessly complicated: did Hepler break the rules by forcing players to endure gay role-playing in a dragon game? Did she break the rules by suggesting that players should be allowed to skip through gameplay to the next narrative sequence? Did she break the rules by not facing her critics, or by firing back at them?
The gaming community is hard at work sorting this out, but their inquisition is unlikely to face up to her true offenses: Hepler broke the rules of the gaming community by being a woman who is not a sexy virtual elf warrior, and by being a woman who does not just shut up. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 2:27 PM - 0 Comments
The PlayStation Vita, which launches on Feb. 22, has been getting a lot of press over the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. On the one hand, with gaming hardware continually getting more powerful, manufacturers are slowing down the rate at which they release next-generation machines. Home consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are now into their seventh and sixth years, respectively, which is considerably longer than the previous generation (the original Xbox, for example, had a four-year run before the Xbox 360 arrived).
Sony’s next-generation handheld is also getting a lot of attention because it is being released into a vastly different world than its predecessors. Over the past few years, smartphones and tablets have arisen to become mobile gaming powerhouses, leading observers to speculate on whether the death of portable systems such as the Vita is nigh. I spoke with Jack Tretton, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, on the topic last week and he, of course, doesn’t see it that way. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Friday, February 17, 2012 at 12:38 PM - 0 Comments
Sony’s next-generation handheld video game system, the whimsically named Vita, officially launches on Feb. 22 after shipping out this week to those who pre-ordered it. It’s a very impressive and attractively priced device–you can read my full review here.
At the Vita’s launch party in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, I chatted with Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, about the Vita, PlayStation and game trends in general. The Vita, as it turns out, comes along at a time of major change in the gaming industry.
Smartphones and tablets have opened up an entirely new frontier for the industry, with people who wouldn’t previously be caught playing video games now idling away for hours on Angry Birds and the like. Nintendo, Sony’s traditional rival in the handheld market, has already felt the pain, as people turned away from the more expensive and involved software produced for such devices and toward cheaper and simpler mobile games.
By Kate Lunau - Monday, December 19, 2011 at 11:15 AM - 0 Comments
The lucrative market for free online games
On Dec. 6, Alec Baldwin was booted off an American Airlines flight after he refused to stop playing Words With Friends, an addictive Scrabble-like game from Zynga Inc., which makes free online games. Famous for its Facebook offerings like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, Zynga enjoyed a publicity boost that couldn’t have been better timed: it’s going public this week, in what observers say is the largest initial public offering (IPO) from a U.S. Internet company since Google Inc., in 2004. Zynga isn’t the only free online games maker causing an investor frenzy. Last week, Asian rival Nexon Corp. set the price for its $1.2-billion IPO, said to be Japan’s biggest all year.
These companies might offer their games for free, but both have found ways to get people to spend real money once they’re playing. In Nexon’s popular MapleStory, for example, couples who wish to get “married” have to fork over $25 for the wedding package. (About three-quarters end in divorce and after 10 days players can remarry.) Only three per cent of Zynga’s 227 million monthly users are paying players, chief executive Mark Pincus told potential investors last week. Even so, that didn’t stop its IPO from being worth almost $1 billion.
By Jesse Brown - Friday, November 18, 2011 at 3:55 PM - 5 Comments
Gamers are fetishists for realism. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year developing virtual worlds into ever more realistic simulations of our own. Every follicle of hair, every machine gun blast, every enemy’s cry for mercy is noodled and tweaked by engineers and artists for maximum verisimilitude. The first-person shooter genre seems particularly obsessed with realism–gamers want to actually feel like they’re fighting in every way. Well, in almost every way–the one aspect of war that developers have never shown much interest in recreating is pain. That, though, may soon change.
The Gadget Show, a surprisingly well-resourced program on the U.K.’s Channel 5, recently built and documented what is perhaps the world’s most realistic battle simulator, complete with virtual enemies that can actually hurt you–via real-life paintball guns. Here’s a video of it: It’s all worth watching, but the heavy action comes around 9:30.
While this is all very technically impressive, what I find most interesting is that host Jason Bradbury genuinely seems to enjoy getting shot. Unless Bradbury is faking it (or just is into that sort of thing) the possibility of pain seems to radically amp up his sense of immersion. His fear seems real, as does his elation. The pain-game seems fun, and I kinda want to try it.
So is this the future of gaming? And if we set off in this direction, will gamers need ever higher levels of pain to get their kicks?
I shudder to think.
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 9:48 AM - 3 Comments
It’s not often I become a quivering fanboy while interviewing someone, but it happened a few weeks ago when I got the chance to speak with comics legend Stan Lee. As the man who put Marvel Comics on the map in the 1960s by creating the likes of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, he’s pretty much responsible for much of the joy I experienced as a kid.
My childhood revolved around comic books. I’d bike downtown several times a week to buy them, then spend the rest of the week reading them. I learned to draw by emulating the likes of John Romita Jr., John Byrne and Marc Silvestri, and I’m pretty certain comic books contributed a great deal to my reading ability. And that of course led to writing, which is what I do for a living. In some ways, my entire livelihood can be traced back to Stan the Man. Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 2:40 PM - 28 Comments
Most geeks have a sense of humor about being geeks. They wear the term with pride, knowing that these days it connotes expertise and passion as much as it does obsessiveness and poor seduction skills. Geeks are the biggest creators and consumers of geek humor, and as a tech journalist with a geek-heavy audience, I rarely think twice about tweaking the nerds a little. They usually giggle and tease me back. It’s a cute thing we do, and everyone seems to have a good time.
Then there are the gamers. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 1:20 PM - 4 Comments
Oh that Jesse Brown. He’s at it again. Regular readers probably remember our spirited back and forth recently about Apple’s relative level of importance to technology over the past decade. Now, with his latest post, Jesse has me frothing over another topic: video games.
In his post, Jesse takes issue with the big tax breaks and other financial incentives that video game companies have received in many countries to set up shop there, especially Canada. As Jesse puts it, it’s a highly profitable industry that’s also one of the most subsidized: Continue…
By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 3:46 PM - 65 Comments
The New York Times has published an exhaustively reported piece exposing the cocktail of deductions, write-offs and tax credits that make the video game business one of America’s most heavily subsidized industries. This level of government cheese is usually reserved for enterprises presenting some kind of clear social benefit in terms of education, health, environmentalism or the like. Heavy subsidies like this can also be put in place to nurture fledgling industries.
Without engaging in the ever-annoying debate on whether video games are good or bad for us, I think we can all agree that they’re not as sympathetic a cause for hand-outs as, say, clean energy tech or funny costumes for puppies.
And the health of the industry is inarguable—sales of video games reached $15 billion in the U.S. alone last year, eclipsing the music industry, if that still means anything—and it would likely do just fine without the charity. So why the corporate welfare?
The reasons are many, but underpinning them all is the dodgy notion that video game jobs are somehow more valuable than other jobs, and that video game technology is somehow a crucial area that America should lead. I’m not sure how making BoneTown can be equated with the space race, but the magical thinking that has convinced American legislators they are in desperate need of unshaven game devs in funny Internet t-shirts has also mesmerized our own Canadian policy makers.
Name-checked in the Times piece are Canada’s video game industry subsidy schemes. Each province is elbowing the next in the neck in a hyper-competitive battle to lure foreign game-makers to their soil. The objective? Jobs for coders. Seduced by sexy talk of information workers and creative economies, provincial governments have collectively handed billions to game makers. Quebec, for example, contributes as much as 37 cents for every dollar on a coder’s paycheck.
I suspect that once the magical silicone dust settles, both governments will learn that coders are the grunts of gaming. Companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts will exploit our tax breaks for as long as it serves them. When developing workforces in, say, Bangalore train enough skilled code-monkeys to undercut local coders, the jobs will quickly migrate to India, leaving little of the creative economy behind.
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
While down at Sony’s PlayStation holiday preview event in New York last week, I came across a pleasant surprise. One of the launch titles for the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the portable game system that will succeed the PlayStation Portable by the end of this year, is being developed by Queasy Games, a tiny Toronto startup.
Queasy is the brainchild of Jonathan Mak, a 28-year-old game designer who studied computer science at the University of Toronto. Mak saw his first success a few years ago with Everyday Shooter, which was picked up and offered by Sony as a downloadable game over the PlayStation Network. That led to the upcoming Vita release Sound Shapes, an intriguing idea that marries gaming with music creation.
I wrote about some of the better Vita games last week and also had a chat with Mak about the world of independent games. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Q: How did you get into games?
A: My parents started a computer business in the eighties so we always had a computer lying around and my older brothers would be playing video games. Somewhere around grade 7 or 8 I met a friend who taught me how to make programs, how to code. That’s when I started making video games. Back then it was a lot harder to make games because you had to do all this weird computer hackery just to draw a pixel.
I was trying to think of how to break in [to the business], but there was no indie scene or at least I wasn’t aware of it. All I knew about was whatever was in PC Gamer. Someone in the industry told me to go to university, so I did. I don’t know how helpful that was but I did meet a fellow game developer there, they’re now Metanet [creators of the popular game N+]. They were a year or two ahead of me and they showed me the indie scene back then. They started working on N and I thought, hey—maybe I could make a game on my own instead of working for some gigantic company.
When I graduated I took a year off to try to make a game that I could sell and break in [with], but that [Gate 88] didn’t do very well at all. From there, I got a job. [Gate 88] had a chat program built in and someone offered me a job in that chat program. I did that for a couple of years and during that time I worked on Everyday Shooter, which was my first commercial game and the first that actually came out and made money. After that, I hooked up with Shaw-Han Liem, a musician from Toronto, and we started collaborating on a project. It was very simple, we were working on a visualizer and started dabbling with some game prototypes. We did like nine prototypes and then we hit upon an idea that would become Sound Shapes. Since then we’ve hired some people to help us out.
Q: When did you form Queasy?
A: Queasy was the name I would release games under when I was a kid, in grade 7 and 8. When I put out Everyday Shooter I just called the company Queasy Games.
Q: Are you still in a basement or do you have an office?
A: We have an actual office, but we were in a basement until we had our first hire, which was a year and a half or two years ago.
Q: How did you get hooked up with Sony for the Vita?
A: [Everyday Shooter] happened because I was showing that game at the [Independent Games Festival] and got nominated as a finalist. A bunch of Sony guys were there and I guess they liked it and offered to publish it. So with [Sound Shapes], since we’d already done business with Sony, it made sense to go back to them to see what they thought. When we showed them, they flew us down [in 2009] and showed us the early prototype Vita hardware. They were like, “It’s a good fit, what do you think?” and we were like, “Okay.”
Q: How has working on Sound Shapes been?
A: The design of it is so difficult to comes to terms with because of the tight integration with musical gameplay. If you change one little thing, like you make one thing move faster so that it’s more fun, that breaks the music. You do one thing to the music and that breaks the game. That’s been the hardest part, is figuring that out. It’s not a resource-intensive thing, it’s just that someone has to sit down and go through it.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you find as an indie game developer?
A: It may not be the answer you’re expecting, but it’s just about making a good game. Once you’ve made a good game, people want good games, publishers want good games, your audience wants good games. From a business point of view, it’s easy to market a good game. People will pay money for that. The hardest part is coming up with a good concept and executing on it. There’s a balance between the amount of time it takes to do that and the amount of money you have in the bank. I’ve gone through the process twice now of having no money to make a game. It’s about not giving in to tangential jobs just to pay for your project.
Sometimes you might make something that you think is really awesome but that the public just doesn’t get or isn’t ready for and then you have to make a decision of, “Oh I can take this path and dumb it down or be true to myself and figure out why nobody is getting it. Can I change it in a way that it’s accessible but doesn’t destroy the original vision of the game?” That’s something I hope as a game creator that I learn to do better and better because that would help to make the game better.
Q: Why did you decide to stay independent rather than working for a big company?
A: It wasn’t like I was sitting there and thinking, “Okay, I could work for a triple-A game company or I can start my own business and make a game.” It was more like I have this idea for a game, so how do I make it? I guess by definition at the time, that was independent. I also thought that it’d be hard to get a job. After that first year where I made the game that didn’t do very well, I actually tried to get a job in a triple-A game company and they didn’t hire me, which I think was a good decision on everyone’s part. I don’t think I would have done well there. It’s so specialized and I have no desire to specialize.
Q: It seems like many good independent game companies eventually get bought up. Can they survive on their own or do they inevitably get acquired?
A: There are people who are in it just to make video games and there are people in it to start a business making video games. For me it’s never been about making money. The only reason Queasy Games is incorporated is because there’s a technical issue where if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t get money. From a business point of view I know tons of people who don’t get bought out, who stay small. It’s kind of surprising when you say that most small companies get bought up because I don’t know anyone who would want to get bought. The business entity exists for negotiating their next game and that’s it, it’s not to grow or for turning a profit. They’re secondary to making a great game. For me, if one day I burn all the cash and the capital is gone, I’m perfectly okay with finding a job and making my games on the side until the next game I make makes money. I wouldn’t go and work on a game that I have no interest in because life is too short to do something you don’t want to do.
In Canada, we do have a lot of grant programs and that really helps keep companies alive to make their games. It’s a very good buffer. There’s a couple granting agencies and there’s also arts grants, which I haven’t had much luck with because I don’t think games are generally recognized as art in the arts-granting community in Toronto and Canada.
Q: Some people, like film critic Roger Ebert, have said video games aren’t art. How do you weigh in on that debate?
A: When I was a kid coming out of university I totally got into that debate, but it was very academic. Now, I don’t really care. Whether people think it’s art or not doesn’t concern me. For many years now, I’ve thought that you decide whether it’s art, it’s not for Ebert to decide. You look at a painting and that can mean nothing to you or something to you, or you walk down the street and you hear that wind rustling through the trees. That can have meaning for you. For some people, it’s just, “Oh, it’s breezy today.” People should just think for themselves. I’ve been able to read meanings into games and also not, depending on the game. Same for movies, novels. For me, it’s beyond that question now. When I think of that debate, it’s like looking at a photograph where I’m like 19 or 20 thinking about those things. It’s as absurd as asking a musician, “Why are you doing this? Is it art that you’re doing?” Maybe what I’m doing isn’t art to you, but who cares, it’s just what I do.
Q: That said, what’s your favourite game?
A: My favourite game is probably Tetris. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I was like 8, and I’ve never stopped playing. When I started playing it, I actually didn’t like it, but then I saw my brother’s friend playing it and he was speed running it. I was like, “There’s this whole other side to this simple game that I didn’t see.” I started reading into it. I was going through some stuff when I was kid and I thought, “Oh, this game is like life. Sometimes you get really bad pieces and you just have to deal with it.” Then I started to think of it in terms of probability, which is when that poker craze happened – at least in Canada – where poker became a thing and people were talking about odds and stuff. I was like, “Oh yeah, sometimes you have to rearrange the play field so that odds are you’ll have a piece that you can use somewhere.” It’s something that has always grown with me and once in a while I’ll think of a new meme for it.
By Jesse Brown - Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 3:49 PM - 3 Comments
We’ve known about gold farming for years. It’s the practice of monotonously earning virtual currency in games like World of Warcraft in order to sell it for real cash to less patient gamers. Building up gold takes hours and hours, and is still only worth the effort if you’re doing it in a country where wages are very low and you’re selling your product to gamers in countries that are relatively affluent. Most of the world’s gold farming takes place in China, where young men live in flophouse apartments and go on 20 hour marathon gaming stretches, methodically whacking goblins on the head to earn livings slightly better than what they’d get working at real-world factories. Here’s a great audio documentary my colleague Geoff Siskind produced on the subject (skip to 12:45).
As grim as that all sounds, a report has emerged of a much more sinister practice: forced gold farming in labour camps. A former inmate of the Jixi labour camp in north-east China tells The Guardian of long days spent digging trenches, followed by long nights of forced video gaming. Hundreds of prisoners were reportedly exploited by corrupt guards into gaming into the night. Those who failed to meet their virtual gold quotas would be beaten with plastic pipes.
Besides being absolutely bonkers crazy, the gold farming phenomenon is instructive in getting us thinking about best practices for a globalized online economy. This isn’t the cheery world-flattening that Thomas Friedman promised us—it’s the realtime exploitation of radical disparities in wealth, divorced from any one nation’s labour laws and depersonalized by anonymizing technology.
By Jesse Brown - Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 5:05 PM - 14 Comments
The war over violent video games, raging for decades now, can get as loud and dumb as the games themselves. Media watchdogs, parents’ groups and religious organizations are quick to blame gaming for everything from falling literacy rates to school shootings. Meanwhile the massive gaming industry dodges these accusations with its self-imposed ratings system as its army of hot-headed gamers stubbornly deny any connection whatsoever between gaming and behaviour.
Mention in an online forum that you don’t like your kid slitting the throat of drug kingpins all night when he sleeps over at his friends’ house, and a hundred goons will chastise you for allowing your kid to play what is laughably classified as “Mature” content. One side demonizes the other for corrupting millions of innocents, the other blames its opponents for raising their children poorly. Things can get tense. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Friday, March 4, 2011 at 10:17 AM - 0 Comments
Hosni Mubarak is barred from leaving Egypt, while the Taliban lays claim to a Canadian hostage
Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak has been banned from leaving the country and had all his assets frozen as the interim government investigates 30 years of kleptocracy. Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi is running out of both time and money after a UN resolution denied him access to billions stashed away in the U.K., U.S., Austria and Switzerland. And even some of those who shared in the spoils have had a change of heart. Canadian songstress Nelly Furtado says she will now donate the $1 million she earned singing for the Gadhafi clan in 2007 to charity. Who knew that tyrants liked Top 40?
Speaking of a change of heart, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has vowed to crack down on government corruption and narrow the income gap between the country’s rich and poor. The Communist leader also promised to rein in inflation, stabilize housing prices and address “social conflict.” Of course, his pledges came as thousands of security officials descended on Beijing and Shanghai to snuff out any planned Mideast-style protests. But the mere fact that China is even talking about tackling corruption and poverty is welcome news.
Grow baby, grow
A Massachusetts biotech firm says it has genetically engineered an organism that turns water, CO2 and sunlight into usable fuel—for cheap. The “biodiesel” produced by its cyanobacterium will cost about US$30 a barrel, the company says, with an acre of the algae yielding 57,000 litres of gas. But going green isn’t quite that simple. Burning the biofuel would still produce plenty of climate-changing gases.
It’s only a game
Relax, mom and dad. Just because your kids like to play gory, blood-soaked video games doesn’t mean they will become desensitized to real-life violence. New research has found that gamers and non-gamers displayed the same negative reactions when shown disturbing photos, including one of a man holding a gun to a woman’s head. In fact, parents should worry less about content and more about duration. A Chinese man was found dead at his computer after a three-day gaming bender with no sleep and little food.
A different kind of detainee
The Taliban say they are holding a Canadian tourist hostage, claiming he is a spy. Colin Rutherford, a 26-year-old recent graduate of the University of Toronto, travelled to Afghanistan in October for a two-week vacation and hasn’t been seen since. Foreign Affairs says it is working with local authorities to secure his release, but the precedents aren’t good. Beverly Giesbrecht, a Vancouver woman who converted to Islam and travelled to the Afghan border to make a pro-Taliban documentary, has been their prisoner since November 2008. Her fate remains unknown.
Out of order
A Manitoba judge is under pressure to resign after all but blaming a rape victim for the assault she endured. In a ruling that made headlines around the world, Justice Robert Dewar said the attacker was a “clumsy Don Juan” who doesn’t deserve jail because the woman was wearing lipstick, a tight shirt—and suggesting that “sex was in the air.” His conclusion? “This is a case of misunderstood signals.” The only thing difficult to understand is how Dewar still has a job. WikiLeaks founder and accused rapist Julian Assange can only wish he were facing charges in Canada.
Like master, like pet
Does nobody walk the dog anymore? A study released by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (yes, there is such an organization) says 53 per cent of cats and 55 per cent of dogs are overweight or obese. Like their masters, pudgy pets have lower life expectancies and are more likely to suffer from diabetes, arthritis and high blood pressure. The solution? Send your mutt to France, where a luxury hotel built specifically for pets includes swimming lessons, “doggy jogging,” and a pooch treadmill.
The last American veteran of the First World War has died at the age of 110. Frank Buckles joined the U.S. Army in 1917, at age 16, and went on to serve in England and France. Canada’s final vet, John Babcock, died at 109 last year. Authorities believe there are now only two remaining participants in the war to end all wars—109-year-old Claude Choules and 110-year-old Florence Green, both British. Lest we forget.
By Josh Dehaas - Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 4:20 PM - 0 Comments
Taxpayers would be subsidizing violent games through the new interactive digital media tax credit
When Ubisoft set up a studio in Toronto last July, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty stood in front of a giant flat screen TV displaying graphics from Assassin’s Creed II.
The game was developed in Canada by the type of “creative minds” Ontario needs, he said, undaunted that taxpayers would be subsidizing violent games through the new interactive digital media tax credit. But the release of another new game has prompted anger from at least one politician. In Medal of Honor, players can don the persona of a Taliban fighter and shoot American soldiers. “I find it wrong to have anyone, children in particular, playing the role of the Taliban,” said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.