Category: Feed the Monster


By Max Neopikhanov:

‘Arcades are dead.’ Those words have echoed throughout the video game industry since the early ’90s, when video game giants Nintendo and Sega brought  games out of the small niche of arcade halls and Atari consoles, and into the living rooms of millions of ordinary people who were enthralled with Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. Arcade vendors did not know it yet, but home video game consoles would not only become more popular than arcade halls, they would supplant them almost entirely.

Industry experts say arcade games just a novelty, a nostalgic link to a bygone era, and that home consoles have completely replaced cabinets just as online gaming has all but eradicated local gaming communities. They say the virtual has trumped the real because the virtual is easier and quicker. But in a busy metropolis that’s home to every sort of gamer imaginable, one arcade has become a stronghold that promotes the survival of a community, a community that relishes the golden age of arcades, a community that is home to some of the most competitive gamers on the east coast.

Just a few streets away from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, amidst a quiet and unassuming residential neighborhood, stands the last link to the glory days of the 90s arcade scene. Transcending the boundaries of business and community, Next Level arcade, which opened last march under Henry Cen, former manager of the legendary Chinatown Fair arcade, is currently the premier proving grounds for die hard fighting game fanatics in the city. “If they’re hardcore, they’re gonna come here,” boasted Cen. “If they have something to prove, they’re gonna come here.”

The small storefront is very Spartan and unassuming.  There is no glamorous sign, no neon lights, in fact not much to differentiate it from any other mom and pop video game shop.  However, step inside, and the story becomes quite different.   The cacophony of sound is near deafening.  It is almost impossible to tell which is louder: the high tempo dance music, the sound of grunts and punches from the games, or the chattering of the 30 or so gamers tightly packed in the small space. “You have ten minutes if you want to register for the tournament,” a booming voice announces over the loudspeaker.  Walk up to the front counter and you’ll see the tell tale signs of an arcade, several music and dance arcade games and a few arcade cabinets, but walk past them, and suddenly everything seems remarkably different.

Instead of more traditional arcade cabinets found in the front,  numerous Xbox 360 video game consoles hooked up to large high definition LCD screens line both sides of the corridor – in front of which sit a row of gamers, arcade sticks in their lap.  There are no slots for quarters here.  Next Level charges three dollars per hour of play, ten dollars for an entire day, and an additional three dollars if one wants to rent an arcade stick.  In comparison, Dave & Buster’s, the restaurant, bar and arcade chain, charges up to $2 per individual play for certain games.

Rather than having to pay per play as is fairly standard in the industry, at gamers at Next Level say the goal is not to make quarters last but rather to learn from and study their opponents and make friends.  “People are more social here,” explained Cen.  “In a [traditional] arcade setting, people can look aggressive or passive and you may not want to approach them.”

The owner and chief operator of Next level, Cen entered the arcade industry in 1996 when he began working at Chinatown Fair Arcade on 8 Mott Street for its then current owner, Samuel Palmer.  He himself being no stranger to competitive gaming, Cen helped modernize the arcade and bring it up to date with the tastes of arcade gamers. “I asked my boss at that time to invest in generally fighting games because they were popular, and music games because they generated the most revenue in the 90s,” Cen explained.

A link to the Past

Chinatown Fair, which originally opened in the 1920s and has gone through several owners and was at one point called the Golden Princess before Palmer moved it across the street and re-named it.  According to Cen, Palmer, who is now in his 80s, had a financial dispute with the building landlord, and unable to come to a resolution, closed Chinatown Fair in February 2011. Cen thinks that the folding of Chinatown Fair is indicative of the recent trend of shuttered businesses in Chinatown, and Palmer wasn’t the only store owner forced to close up shop. “There are a lot of stores in Chinatown now, and if you go down Mott Street they are all vacant,” he said. “It’s just absurd to charge that crazy amount of rent.”

With its open free-for-all gaming environment and location in a busy shopping district, accessibility and diversity was sometimes a double edged sword at the Mott street arcade.  Chinatown Fair was inviting to all sorts of players; casual gamers, hardcore gamers, and sometimes those just looking for trouble.   Mark Robson, a 28 year old graphic designer who has been playing fighting games a since he was a teenager said, “Back in the day when there were more traditional arcades in the early 1990s those audiences clashed. People would get into fist fights over dumb stuff.”

A mountain of a man and himself an avid gamer since he could hold a controller, Akuma Hokoru worked security at Chinatown Fair before joining Cen at Next Level, and often had to break up fights.  Though still responsible for security, Hokoru has since focused more on the additional responsibilities of being the Next Level’s announcer and tournament organizer.  He hasn’t had to stop any violence yet and feels that Next Level’s dedicated crowd is too mature to get into any physical altercations.

When the venerable Chinatown Fair shuttered last February, Cen came to the rescue and created a community for the dedicated regulars who frequented the failed arcade;  a community that, unlike Chinatown Fair, catered specifically to those serious about competitive gaming.  Himself a professional gamer, Cen says he understands the competitive gaming culture and his customers. “I’m not just an owner,” Cen explained.  “I’m a competitor, I go majors, regionals; I know what the players want because I’ve been playing professional gaming for so long.”

Cen often lends his expertise to the regular live broadcasts of tournaments on the e-sports websiteTwitch.tv, where he sometimes provides commentary and play by play analysis with other veteran gamers and Next Level employees.  Like their professional sports counterparts the commentators aim to break down some of the technical gameplay in popular fighting games like Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and provide insights into the gaming scene – and give an occasional humorous anecdote.

Though it has received more attention in recent years, professional gaming remains a generally esoteric concept even to those familiar with video games.  “The general public often plays games on a very elementary level, but some people play the game and take it to an analytical level,” said Robson.  “A lot of people don’t understand that there is an academic way to look at games, in the same way like looking at strategy and applying it.”

Go for Broke

Tournaments are perhaps the bread and butter at Next Level, explained Cen.  Held several times a week and attracting an upwards of forty people, these three to four hour long marathons allow gamers who have painstakingly honed their skills to show their chops to not only the local community, but also the national, professional fighting game scene.  There is also a chance to walk out with some prize money.  “We generally have a pot to which players contribute the entry fee to the tournament, which is sometimes $5, sometimes $10,” said Cen.  “Victors can win anywhere from $10 to $70 to depending on their placing.”

Making a few dollars playing your favorite games is nice, say Next Level’s patrons, but it’s not the sole driving force for many competitors. To them, even losing is an experience worth having. “I like meeting new players that change the boundaries of how I think the game is,” explained Robson. “If I go home, even if I lose, I learn something and that’s important for me.”

The top gamers at Next Level don’t stop at participating and winning local tournaments, a few gamers at venuel have the claim to fame as top competitors in their field, often sometimes traveling across the country and winning tournaments at other venues.  Nathel Florez is a 20 year old student who has been in the arcade fighting game scene for more than a year and a half and started playing Street Fighter IV at Chinatown Fair a few months before it closed.  He has won several tournaments at Next Level and even claimed top honors in the form of a Samsung Galaxy phone at a tournament hosted by the tech giant Samsung.  “It’s so hard to even get top five.  People distinguish higher and lower level by how they place,” Florez explained. “You have to really put a lot of time into it.  It takes a lot of work, a lot of mental preparation.”

Other players take gaming even further and make a career of the skills honed at Next Level.  Christopher Gonzales has just recently reached the legal drinking age of 21 but already holds the status of professional gamer, making his living primarily through endorsements and prize money. “I’ve played video games my whole life,” explained Gonzales in a tone eerily similar to a professional athlete. “One day, my uncle brought me to Chinatown Fair and that’s pretty much when I decided that I wanted to do it for a living.”   It doesn’t pay an exuberant salary and Gonzales isn’t rich, but he has travelled throughout the country to attend prominent tournaments in several states like Nevada, Florida, New Jersey – and even had a flight scheduled the next day for a sponsored tournament in Georgia.

Worlds Apart

Because of Next Level’s somewhat more inaccessible location than its Chinatown predecessor, and perhaps due to the proliferation of online gaming, gamers say that the tournament scene has diminished in New York.   All of the games played at Next Level can be purchased and be played on a home console such as Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, with internet play making it possible to get into a virtual ring against thousands of other players over a broadband connection.  Why then play at an arcade venue at all?

There is something “psychological,” about competing face to face with another gamer, said Cen; something that can never be replicated in a virtual environment.  Many gamers at Next Level feel that there is a disconnection in playing online games, both literally in terms of internet lag and unreliable connections, and the anonymity of playing with a complete stranger who may say or do things that they may not if they were playing against a human being in an interpersonal setting. “There’s definitely something more immediate about playing someone face to face,” said Robson.

Those who casually play fighting games at home and online may be ill equipped play competitively at Next Level, say a few of the gamers.  “If this is the first time someone has seen competitive gaming it can either go one of two ways,” Gonzales said. “One, they’re either very interested; or two, they are very,” he paused for a moment, “de-motivated.”

Expert or novice, casual or professional, Next Level offers something noticeably absent from many modern video games, a chance to hang our with friends and rivals, to play until your wrist are sore and your thumbs callused, without having to worry about exchanging dollar bills for quarters to feed the hungry arcade machines.

Cen is happy with the small cove he created for New York’s community of competitive gamers to whom the difference between the two is paramount.  And so long as there is demand for a competitive arcade in this constantly changing and evolving gaming scene, Cen says is willing to take it to it the next level.

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With an ever-changing video game market it is not uncommon to see franchises established on one system eventually arrive on another.  No one would have believed that Sonic, Spyro the Dragon, or Crash Bandicoot would grace a Nintendo platform but they all have.  Halo began its life as a PC exclusive before it caught the eye of Microsoft, became a flagship title for the Xbox, and subsequently was ported back over to the PC a few years later.  Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, once one of the driving forces behind the unprecedented success of the Playstation 2, is now on all the major platforms. (Barring the Nintendo Wii)  The departure of PC centric developers like BioWare, Epic Games, and Lion Head Studios to multi-platform or console exclusive development has been disappointing to say the least.  Not because of a desire to keep these studios solely within the PC community, but because their titles haven’t really been the same since their shift towards console development.

Though it is evident that the success and proliferation of piracy on the net has caused some of these developers to jump ship and swim for friendlier waters, newer independent developers and some prolific console ones have braved the waters to try and reap some of the booty from the largely untapped treasure that is the PC games market.

Most of these games are released multi-platform to maximize profits and safeguard from PC piracy though there are several key experiences available only on PCs – at least for the time being.  The following games are great – though not always perfect – showcases for computers as viable gaming platforms.

RPGs:

The Witcher – Strong well acted lead role for a protagonist? Check. Immersive and original fantasy setting? Check. Gorgeous scenery and visuals? Check Check.  The Witcher, a breakout hit in 2007 and based on the fantasy novels of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowsky, made a strong impact in the RPG genre at release; it’s dark and magical world resonated with a sense of stark realism and palpable issues not usually covered by the fantasy genre.  Racism, vice, political corruption and intrigue are all important themes back-dropping a world filed with cloak and dagger spies, cutthroats, mercenaries and ravenous monsters.  Though not open world like the Elder Scrolls series, The Witcher still managed to deliver a satisfying story while giving the player choice over matters of morality in the main story and the many side quests – always with varying shades of gray and often to weightily consequences. Perhaps one of the unfortunate shortcomings of the game was that that it originally shipped with several annoying game-play bugs, though fortunately they were patched and a re-mastered version containing additional material released.

The Witcher 2 has recently been released to wide acclaim and builds on the original’s engaging world and protagonist by upping the cinematic presentation, incorporating stunning graphics, and streamlining the combat and controls.  The game remains a PC exclusive for now but is slated to be released for Xbox 360 by the end of the year.  The PC version will definitely be the superior if your hardware can handle it.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  The Shadow of Chernobyl series:  Released more than a year before Bethesda’s massive hit Fallout 3, Stalker allowed gamers to explore an irradiated world filled with mercenaries and mutants.  Not quite in a ‘wasteland’ setting, the game none the less made you feel like you’re in something very close, perhaps due to it taking place in the heart and surrounding area of the real life Chernobyl nuclear disaster.   Largely a first-person shooter with some RPG elements, Stalker is a semi-open world game where exploration plays an important part in a very bleak and dangerous world.  The game and its several sequels have great graphics and atmosphere while offering tight shooter controls.  Not quite as an RPG as fallout 3 the games still contain just enough role-playing elements to keep RPG fans engaged.  Like with the Witcher, Stalker and its sequels have contained some bugs that have kept the series back from universal acclaim, though most have been fixed through patches and by the community.

World of Warcraft: Little needs to be said for this titan of a game.  Even those not familiar with computer games – or RPGs for that matter – most likely know about WoW.  The game underhandedly revolutionized the MMORPG genre at release in 2005 and has since dominated it with more than 60% of the market share.  If playing a fantasy RPG full of orcs, goblins and elves with millions of other people sounds appealing, then World of Warcraft along with its several expansions could be worth trying as it still stands as one of the better MMO experiences available today.

Star Wars the Old Republic:  If there is any game with the potential to bite into the enormous market share of WoW, it’s the upcoming Star Wars The Old Republic MMORPG by Bioware – with over a million and a half beta subscribers already on board, the game is shaping up to be a big hit in the online community.  BioWare is pouring a tremendous amount of resources into shaping the story and the mechanics of the game and with a proper launch and a steady stream of content it might be the next big MMO to play.  SWTOR is slated to be released later this year.

Diablo III – This upcoming sequel in the classic Blizzard Diablo franchise looks to give fans what they want: bloody isometric action-RPG gameplay with plenty of loot to collect and monsters to slay.  The game is shaping up to be a great revival of an endeared franchise, much in the same way Star Craft II turned out to be.  Fans of the dungeon crawl have allot to look forward to, and Blizzard rarely (if ever!) disappoints.  Look for Diablo III to be out sometime next year -hopefully.

Shooters:

Crysis: Crytek has joined the club of PC game developers who have jumped on the multi-platform bandwagon with the release of their latest though not so greatest hit, Crysis 2.  It’s wonderful that console gamers can experience some of the tech and gameplay that has made the series into the blockbuster it is today, though the sequel by no means tops the original –  surprisingly not even in the visuals department.  The original Crysis’ open ended game-play and large jungle environments are replaced in the sequel with linear shootouts in a concrete New York City.  Sure Crysis wasn’t totally perfect; the story left much to be desired and the incredible graphics required a powerful computer, but ultimately the game delivered on its promise of being a super-soldier in a non-linear jungle.  The game’s last third section is amongst the best I have ever played, featuring Matrix inspired aliens and jaw dropping battle sequences.  Some gamers may ascertain that the game is shallow and focuses on visuals over substance.  The majority of these naysayers probably have never played past the demo level. Crysis will undoubtedly be remembered as a benchmark for computer graphics – it’s worth noting that though it won’t win any writing awards, it’s a blast to play from start to finish.

Team Fortress 2:  I thought this game was released on the consoles as part of the Orange Box? Why is it on this list? Yes Team Fortress 2 was released on both the Xbox 360 and the Ps3.  Yes it belongs on this list.  To say that console gamers received TF2 is as if to say that you can receive a half written book and call it a complete read.

TF2 is a multi-player team based online first person shooter featuring quirky characters not unlike ones you might find in a Dreamworks 3D animated film.  Different classes such as the minigun toting heavy weapons guy, the team-mate healing medic, or the long range sniper can be used to lead your team to victory through the capture of a particular objective, the capture of the enemy’s intelligence documents, or the pushing of a large cart full of high explosives.

The game as it is now on the PC is a wholly different animal, Valve software has revamped the game-play, added an enormous amount of free content and incorporated an online store for the purchase of premium content like hats and crafting materials to make custom hats.  The console versions are in comparison, a beta of the TF2 being played now.  The game was fairly good at its release in 2008.  In 2011 it stands as one of the most popular online shooters on the PC due to the extensive support by Valve Software.

Real Time Strategy:

Dawn Of War 2: Ready at Dawn Studios’ well crafted Dawn of War 2 is a shining example of how to expand the RTS genre by streamlining the game-play so that those who may not know the difference between micro or macro management can enjoy the game alongside strategy veterans.  The single-player campaign’s focused story takes place in the gothic-scifi universe of Warhammer 40,000, and revolves around a squad of well armed space marines. It puts the players’ control on the action rather than base and resource management; with a few RPG elements such as leveling up squad members and gear thrown in for good measure.  The multi-player is completely different beast with up to six players controlling multiple squads to outwit and outmaneuver their foes.  The single player campaign may be to simplistic for the hardcore RTS gamer, but anyone who likes a side of action and RPG with their tactics will appreciate the new direction Ready at Dawn goes with Dawn of War 2.

Star Craft II: As American football is to the states and soccer is to much of the world, the original Star Craft became somewhat of a past time for many South Koreans with televised matches and endorsements for professional players.  Indeed throughout the entire PC RTS community Star Craft reigned as the game of choice of millions of gamers despite being released over 13 years ago.   The good news is that purists need not fret, the sequel Star Craft II: Wings of Liberty has retained much of what made the original the hit it has been albeit with more focused and cinematic storytelling and an expanded multi-player mode supporting up to 12 players.  The plot revolves around a group of human (terrans) rebels as they fight both the powers-at-be and the multitude of alien infestations.  The game-play is much of your traditional RTS fare revolving around base building, resource gathering, and massive battles involving both infantry, armored vehicles, and space ships/ air support.  Unlike the original game the sequel only presents the player with the terran campaign an not those of the bug-like Zerg or the high-tech Protoss aliens – those campaigns are slated for future expansions.  It’s a small gripe in an otherwise outstanding game but should be noted considering Star Craft II’s hefty $60 price tag.  The next expansion pack will focus on the Zerg and will be out sometime next year.

Total War Series: If 300 pound space marines, savage space Orks, or the high-tech Protoss don’t have much appeal, and neither does base building or resource management, then the Total War series might be of interest to the RTS fan.  Grounded on history, the past two games in the series, Empire Total War and Shogun Total War, are excellent installments in a franchise where seeing thousands of troops fighting it out on screen at any one time is common place and the feeling of being part of a real historical battle is very palpable.  The campaign mode features turn based movement of your forces across the world map while managing finances, trade embargoes, and political alliances.  With installments taking place in Europe, North Africa, the Colonial Americas, Ancient Rome and Asia, the series has covered a large segment of history all the while featuring some of the best tactical gameplay in the genre.

Simulation:

The Sims: Out of all of Will Wright’s Sim games – including SimCity, SimLife, SimEarth -none have shaped and expanded the simulation genre as much as the Sims.  Perhaps it is only natural that gamers would be most fascinated with controlling the lives of a few animated characters.  He who has the power to command a computer generated individual to empty their bowels is truly powerful indeed.  Or so I’ve been told. Perhaps just me….

In any case though some of the games in the series have made it to other platforms, none have replicated control or attention to detail of the originals on the PC.  Partially due to the ungodly amount of expansion packs and spin-off titles that have presented the world of the Sims for almost every possible angle.  The latest game in the series, The Sims Medieval, has added RPG elements to a backdrop of a fantasy world full of heroes and wizards.  It seems that becoming a Monarch in a videogame is all the rage these days.  The Sims is still a good series for those looking to control all aspects of a group of hapless humans in their strife to live meaningful (or at least accident free) lives.

Games That Aren’t Exclusive but should be played on the PC

The Elder Scrolls series – It may be available on the consoles but the extensive mod community can only be found on the PC.

Fallout series – Like with Elder Scrolls expect the series to remain computer-centric under Bethesda’s development

Unreal Tournament – Epic may have shifted ‘gears’ and focused on Microsoft’s console but its original hit franchise may see a comeback in the future on PCs.

Command and Conquer – To say that the RTS is not suited for consoles is not a PC-centric view; it’s simply a fact of the limitations in console controls.  The C&C series should still be played on a computer. (unless those Nintendo Project Cafe touch screen controller rumors come out to be true!)

Dragon Age Origins – Perhaps Bioware’s swan song to the age of the infinity engine powered RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.  Definitely a must play on the PC.

There are a ton of others that are not listed here

Before the current generation of consoles there was no such thing as ‘DLC’ (downloadable Content), at least not in the sense that the term is used today.  Developers tried give gamers the most out of their product through expansion packs with the purpose of adding additional ‘content’ to the core experience of a game.  Usually this equated to several new levels and an expanded/alternate story line.  Expansion packs usually cost about a half or a third of the original game and like DLC require you to have the original installed.

Aside from the obvious key difference of the delivery method of the content (just try to download 1GB of content on a 56k modem in 2000!) the quality of the content has dramatically changed.  Note I’m not referring to the few traditional expansion packs out there such as those for the Warhammer Dawn of War series, Dragon Age, or those for the many MMOs available.  The type of micro DLC popularized by Microsoft and Sony on their home consoles has found it’s way into computer games over the past few years, both with good and bad effect -though honestly…mostly bad.

Cost of Content

The first negative to DLC on PC’s is the cost to content ratio, or the value of the content.  Microsoft charges gamers an average of 800 MS points (or about $10) for the majority of downloadable content, though some small DLC packs like extra weapons or character skins can go for around 200-500 MS points.  $10-15 sometimes nets you a few multi-player maps or single player levels though rarely add a significant amount of game-play or additional story.  Whereas Half-Life 2 episode 1 and 2 offered several hours of new and expanded game-play and added insight to the series mythos. I would gladly be willing to pay $15 or $20 for 6-7 hours of quality content that expands a games story arc or adds significant multi-player enhancements.  In the case of multi-player, Valve software have given away an enormous amount of multi-player content for Team Fortress 2 (though have also introduced one of the most egregious and overpriced micro-transaction systems to date) Sadly, much some publishers have the nerve to charge $5-10 to play as a particular character or unlock certain stages or extra’s included on the disk.  Luckily this is a mostly console exclusive effect as I have seen few PC publishers with the audacity to attempt something so low.

Delivery

The way the content gets on your computer has changed considerably thanks to much higher internet speed, but is it really all that much more convenient?  The problem with most DLC delivery methods is that most companies offering DLC do it through the less than stellar Games For Windows Live.  Having to buy MS points while wrestling with the in-game GFWL application can range from arduous to downright painful when something goes wrong with it.  Some publishers have easier methods involving CD keys -which can work better in many cases- but still lack an easy and universal method.  Even steam users who purchase a Games for Windows title must go through Micosoft’s app to get the DLC.

Much of the DLC content available on consoles never makes to to the PC version of a game, especially if it isn’t a GFW title.  In some cases it simply takes a long time. Minerva’s Den and the Protector Trials DLC packs for BioShock 2 took more than a year to finally arrive on the PC.  for GTA IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and the Damned also took over a year to make it to the PC.  Obviously Microsoft and the other publishers do not see a big enough market for DLC on the PC front and have devoted resources to making the most from the consoles.  It’s a sad state of affairs but with the way GFWL is going I predict it won’t get any better any time soon.  The one hope for easy DLC remains with Steam if they can somehow convince publishers to avoid GFWL.

Digital delivery is the future of content whether we like it or not; hopefully publishers will push out meaningful content in a streamlined way in the near future.  There’s always the modding communities for us PC gamers who don’t want to jump on the micro-transaction bandwagon, though even that unfortunately has a questionable future given the small amount of modifiable games out in the market now.

This is the first article in an upcoming series of articles analyzing the status of PC gaming in 2011.

Talks of piracy, development costs, MMO dominance, eastern vs. western markets, the port syndrome, and digital distribution have become all too common as the downfalls and saviors of PC gaming.  Probably the most important factor for both gamers and publishers/developers is undoubtedly cost, and in that regard nearly all of the discussions about the future of PC gaming stem from that.

Cost to develop and publish a product, like in all entertainment industries, must not exceed the profit margin.  That’s simple economics.   What’s not simple economics are the factors involved in collecting revenue in our current PC market space.  Retail games have been steadily on the decline with the advent of digital distribution platforms such as Steam and Direct2Drive.  Production costs are minimized in the digital market, as is the shelf space competition of traditional brick and mortar, and to a lesser extent online warehouse retailers.

Quarter year sales aren’t quite as important in the digital market since the games will have a long shelf life. In addition, older titles can be (and are) discounted as part of a sale.  The downside to this is the expectation for big 50-75% off sales that gamers, myself included, have come to expect from the big digital distribution platforms.  In the process of fueling sales and demand through temporary slashed prices publishers ‘train’ gamers to wait for but price cuts.  Big bundles including an upwards of 20 games are offered for less than the cost of one recently released title at full price.  Several people I’ve spoken to have amassed huge collections – think 100+ games – primarily through such sales.

This strategy of digital sales is not unlike the one featured in the mobile games market on the iPhone and Android marketplaces.  Whereas $1-2$ seems to be the sweet spot for mobile games and apps, Steam and direct2drive seem to move a lot of software in the $10-15 range during sales.  I have in fact bought games on sale for $5 (after a 75% discount) simply to add to my collection.  Some of the games haven’t even seen the embrace of an installation and test run.

Statistics from digital distribution are unfortunately absent as big companies like Steam and Direct2Drive do not release such information to the public.  Still, if the current retail sales are to be compared with my findings and the nearly 2 million players online on steam at any one time, profits however small, are being made. In the wake of rampant piracy, publishers want every potential bittorent download to becomes a legitimate Steam purchase, even at the cost of marking down the product by 75%

The other school of though in the PC industry is quite the opposite: increase prices to make up for lower sales.  The three big publishers – EA Games, Activision – Blizzard, and Ubisoft – have all launched products in flagship franchises at $60 a pop both at retail and through digital download.  Call of Duty, Splinter Cell, Assassins Creed, Star Craft , and Crysis have been marked out, because of their success and popularity amongst PC gamers, as premium franchises.  Extensive anti-piracy measures have been taken by the companies to protect their products, most of which have been received with ardent rejection and stark criticism by the PC community. Ubisoft’s attempt to keep gamers tethered to an internet connection in order to play several games was particularly unnerving and served as one of the reasons for me skipping out on the latest Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed games.

Somewhere between these two polar opposites of $60 juggernauts and $60 twenty game collections there must exist a happy medium where publishers and gamers can coexist happily.  Companies that have traditionally passed aside PC gaming, such as Capcom, have offered more support over the past two years – and in the case of Capcom, promise to improve even more.  Microsoft has made a monumental decision of releasing it’s Flagship role-playing game on Steam, a sign of their intent in seeing the growth of the PC gaming industry as a whole and not just their Games for Windows digital distribution platform.

My one hope is that PC gaming doesn’t devolve into an industry of only  AAA $60 blockbusters and $5 indie games.  Growing hardware sales and increased interest in developing markets will assure that PC gaming will never ‘die’ as some have been quick to point out. Game experiences on the PC platform such as the ever-growing Team Fortress 2, Warhammer Dawn of war II, Star Craft 2, the upcoming The Witcher 2 (so many sequels!)  and Star Wars: The old Republic  stand out for PC users. The PC market is an ever evolving one, and with hundreds of millions of capable computers on the market it’s only a matter of coming up with new ways to harness that potential and make a good profit.

Next topic in the series: PC DLC (download content)

More than 20 years old, the venerable Legend of Zelda series is getting quite long in tooth.  Nintendo is trying to mix things up with the upcoming LOZ: Skyward sword for the Nintendo Wii.  The only problem is: why am I reminded of that terrible Zelda cartoon from the 80’s whenever I look at Skyward Sword’s game-play footage?  Have I lost my faith in the series?  Certainly not, I’m just not feeling the whole ‘retro’ feeling Nintendo is going for.

Keen gamers will be quick to point out “hey the original Zelda and A Link To the Past both had a similar style and they were incredible games!” .    The style and simplicity of the early Zelda games was very appropriate for the era considering the resources developers had at their disposal.  The design of those games would certainly not hold up in today’s market, just look at Zelda: The Four Swords Adventures released for the Gamecube in 2004.  That game received the lowest – although good – reception from the critics and some of the lowest sales of any Zelda game.  Skyward Sword is certainly not on the same level as Four Swords yet allusions of simplicity can be drawn to the poorly selling Gamecube title.

In the 90’s games didn’t require expansive story lines to be fun and sell well.  The trouble is, games have become much more cinematic since those days and with the the past few games in the Zelda series focusing more and more on story development, I can’t help but feel like Skyward sword is regressing the series back to a simpler time.

Visuals and style appeal certain games to certain audiences although as games like Team Fortress 2 have taught us, you can’t assume that if something resembles pixar it’s for children.   In terms of style, colorful graphics in themselves aren’t the problem with Skyward Sword.  Wind Waker adapted a colorful cell shaded style yet contained one of the more engaging stories and original worlds in the series.  Majora’s Mask, perhaps the most original game in the series in terms of gameplay, told a brooding tale of Link’s quest to save the world in three days while simultaneously helping to solve people’s problems.  To revert back to the simplicity of the early 8 and 16 bit games for a major console release is quite disappointing.   This is the sort of game that should belong on the 3DS instead the updated port of Ocarina that it is receiving.

There is no doubt in my mind that the game-play mechanics will be solid – thanks to Nintendo’s Wii Motion +.  Unfortunately a Zelda game has to have more than simply good game-play in 2011.  I may be entirely wrong in my early assessment of this new entry since the full release is still quite a ways off.  There’s allot of competition out there and some Zelda fans are waiting for something more substantial than what has since been shown, fortunately the big N still has time to work in a well crafted and non-gimmicky story.  I’m not holding my breath though.

After years of jokes and bad puns Duke Nukem Forever in development’  is finally going to see the dust of a shelf – hopefully not too much dust.   As one of the first graphically – for the time – violent games in the mid-90’s Duke Nukem 3D helped create a staple for both first person shooter gameplay and video game controversy.  There has been a cornucopia of violent and sexual video games since the early 90’s, many of which raised standards for gameplay and storytelling.  The question remains – do we really care about Duke Nukem Forever after over 10 years of waiting?  More importantly, will the game make a dent in a market dominated by violent first person shooters and violent games in general?

Id software is recognized as the father or first person shooters.  Its release of Wolfenstein 3D – a first person shooter in which you are tasked to invade a Nazi stronghold with the goal of killing Hitler and his goons – was controversial in its graphic depiction of killing and praised for its original gameplay.  Id software’s followup title Doom added better graphics and set the stage on a demon infested mars.  The game was lauded by the gaming community and became hugely successful despite being labeled by some as a ‘murder simulator’

3Drealms, the former developer of Duke Nukem Forever, rode their way into the annals of video game history through their release of Duke Nukem 3D.   In respect to early first person shooters DN3D very much emulated Doom, which had become a very successful formula for future fps games.  The caveat of the game was its protagonist Duke, a homage and amalgam of 80’s action movie stars complete with big biceps and cheesy one liners.  The controversy surrounded the fact that you could kill women and ‘pig headed’ cops.  In defense of the game the women only came in two varieties – strippers and mutated damsels begging to be put out of their misery.  The pig cops were clearly mad with power and warped by aliens.   One could look at it as duke providing a service to society – which, considering the general premise of aliens invading earth, was the developers point.  It was not until Grand Theft Auto (1997) that players could kill real police officers.

The Grand Theft Auto series (GTA) is different from early first person shooters in the respect that it is in third person.  The first two games were two dimensional with an over-head perspective.  They featured violence set in a modern city albeit with less detail than Doom or DN3D.  The game’s premise involved stealing cars and doing jobs for the mafia.  The game’s lesser known contemporary, Postal, was released around the same time for PC’s and featured much more detailed depictions of murder and violence.  Due to its relatively non-existent marketing and exclusivity to PC’s, the game did not make a large impact on the gaming community – both commercially and controversially.  In 2001 Rockstar Games, the developer of the GTA series, released what is perhaps one of the greatest innovations in gaming during the new millennium: GTA 3.  Many modern open-world action games owe allot of their formula to this ground breaking third person shooter.  Equally important is its impact on the public perception on video game violence, with parents and politicians rising up in arms over the graphic depictions of murder and other crimes.

In the realm of first person shooters, controversy begins to slowly erode as popular games such as halo and half life begin to incorporate more story and cinematic elements separating themselves from criminal simulators.  WWII becomes a popular theme for shooters, offering gamers a chance to experience the feeling of being a solider in times of war.  As a whole the first person shooter industry begins to see more acceptance from the general public, if not a bit cliche and overused.

By the year 2008 even the venerable GTA franchise has begun to mature.  The latest game in the series, GTA IV, has a very well written story and provides the player with moral choices.  Bioshock – a game by Irrational software  released in 2007- set a standard for story telling and the juxtaposition of moral choices.  Even Disney have take cue from this change in the industry;   their soon to be released Epic Mickey will  incorporate the ability (in fact necessity ) to choose between right and wrong.  We have to wonder:  what will a long awaited game like Duke Nukem Forever bring to the table?  If stripped of its controversial status will the gameplay hold through in the modern era of video games or will it simply be a trip down memory lane, played for nostalgia and then placed on the shelf next to its nearly 15 year old predecessor?  I’d like to think to the contrary as 10 years in development should have been ample time to craft something worth my $60. Maybe a Clockwork orange adaptation could get some concerned citizens back in arms – then again a little video game ultra-violence never really hurt anyone.

http://www.theppsc.org/News/Murder.Simulators.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080514213432.htm

Contrary to what some may believe, the Nintendo 3DS is not Nintendo’s first foray into 3D gaming.  The infamous Virtual Boy was an abysmal failure with it’s eye-crossing, head-ache inducing screens; but it’s apparently not the only attempt.  According to an interview between Nintendo Presidet Iwata, the company’s lead designer Mayamoto and a Japanese journalist Itoi, several other attempts at 3D gaming were done over the course of the company’s history.  Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally: A  Famicom racing game staring our favorite plumber in 3D was developed by HAL Labs and released in 1986 featured special goggles to see the game in a type of 3D.  According to the same interview the Gamecube had 3D functionality built in, only requiring a a certain accessory and a 3D LCD screen, which according to Iwata, was extremely expensive at the time.  Nintendo even developed a version of Luigi’s Mansion in 3D, which sadly has never seen the light of day.  Now where does this place the 3DS, nintendo’s fourth major itteration of it’s handlheld brand started nearly 22 years ago with the original Game Boy?

Handhelds have been Nintendo’s bread and butter for the past 20 years.  Especially with the decline of console sales starting with the 64 and continued up until the success with the Wii.  The DS is now the second biggest selling system off all time, just a few thousand units behind the PS2.  The 3DS has a lot to live up to even though Nintendo has consistently shown that it can capture lightning in a bottle more than once in the handheld market.  According to early reports coming from preview events the 3D is sound and for the most part lives up to Nintendo’s claims. It may not be as pronounced as watching a 3D blockbuster at a movie theater but it’s certainly no Virtual Boy.  There are other issues surrounding the 3DS which will determine the outlook of Nintendo’s new system’s long term well being; that is to say one expects it to sell out like gang busters for the first few months.  The question is, how will people respond to the reported 3-5 hour battery life and the seeming overabundance of ports?  The PSP owners have had to deal with both of those issues since the system’s launch in 2005, issues that have certainly contributed to the system falling a distant second behind the DS.  While on the subject of Sony one must take into consideration the rumored official unveiling of the PSP2 at a strategy conference on January 27th.  Early reports claim that the system is half as powerful as the PS3 and will have an OLED screen and 3G wireless functionality.  Nintendo has issued a statement that it is not interested in it’s competitors products and simply wants to be left alone to do its own thing. Marketing bravado aside Nintendo should learn from their experiences with the Wii that novel control inputs and 3D won’t secure the long term lifespan of their systems.  3rd party support and a cheap price point will.  Nintendo fans have allot to look forward to in the next year on the 3DS, hopefully sooner than later.  Ocarina of Time is finally getting a remake, Kid Icarrus will get a new game after nearly 25 years, and hopefully Nintendo will correct the woeful display of laziness that was Animal Crossing City Folk.  Hopefully Nintendo has something up it’s sleeve for the console owners, but for now we are about to enter a new episode of Nintendo’s hand-held history. 3D hand-held gaming is upon us, but oh if it weren’t so damn expensive…

http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interview.html#/how-nintendo-3ds-made/0/2

http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1009.pdf

http://www.nintendo.com/3ds/hardware/specs

http://www.engadget.com/2011/01/23/nikkei-psp2-to-have-3g-cellular-data-oled-touchscreen/