US, March 11, 2010 - Every game show has its own identity. The Electronic Entertainment Expo is a blockbuster event -- a collective stage for companies to debut and advertise their wares. Big News
or no News
all surrounded in spectacular light shows and music so thumping loud it drowns out thought. DICE has become the annual epicenter of deal brokerage -- the meeting place developers go to pitch and publishers to sign games. And the Game Developers Conference has some of that, too. But at least this year, it was also about getting jobs. Seemingly smaller in scope and less cocky all around. Depressingly, lots of people both young and new to the industry were either looking for work or struggling to hang on to it. A sign of the times, maybe -- the recession has certainly had its impact on videogames, just like any other industry.
Still, GDC continues to house some great panels and lots of behind-the-scenes goings-on. Game-makers still hole up in hotel suites armed only with rented flat-screen televisions and development hardware, and they take meetings with potential partners all day long. Publishers do the same thing, only reversed. And everybody has an opinion about something -- a game, an industry figure -- or a rumor to pass along, unsubstantiated but interesting nevertheless.
For me, GDC is a chance to catch up with people in development or publishing and possibly see games that won't be formally announced for several months if not longer. Then, inevitably, I have to think about ways to secure the exclusives on these games without admitting to the aforementioned developers and publishers that I am actually aware of their existence, have seen or maybe even played them. Imagine a call to a public relations person with a pitch that begins, "So, I'm not saying you're doing this, but if you were going to announce [X] at E3, just wanted you to know that..." You get the picture.
Ultimately, early meetings like these afford me and every other writer in the industry with contacts unfettered insight into some of the games and hardware cooking. Sometimes, the information is good and other times it's just conjecture or hope in disguise. Prior to the launch of GameCube, I remember developers telling me that it was going to be a far superior system to Xbox despite Microsoft's added horsepower because the GCN architecture allowed for better data bandwidth. Needless to say, that never really panned out. Without multiple verifications or the official confirmation, it's not always easy to separate fact from fiction, but I usually find that there's some truth to most persistent rumors, however exaggerated or warped the end information.
So I'm relaxing on a couch in a high-rise suite as a developer offers me a glimpse of its new game, still unannounced but very exciting. We get to talking about Sony's motion controller, recently unveiled. I played with it at publisher's event and as something of a Wii veteran with a firm understanding of how pointer and gestural controls work and how games should feel when they are properly finessed. I'm not impressed, I say. PS3 Move features almost no latency -- just one frame -- but that paper truth didn't seem to translate to reality as I played with the controller at Sony's event. Most of the stuff played like first-generation Wii efforts from third-parties.
Obviously, I'm not making games and I'm sure some software creators will note that with the roll of the eyes and claim that it's all too easy for me to bitch and moan from the backseat, or the sidelines, as it were. But playing the armchair role for a minute, it seems an unavoidable conclusion to me that Sony should have at least examined the very best genre-leaders on Nintendo's platform and then duplicated if not surpassed them with its own Move-controlled experiences. For instance, Medal of Honor, The Conduit and Red Steel 2 offer fantastic controls for first-person shooters. Anything less than these will be considered substandard by the informed masses -- at least those with knowledge of Wii's library. Unfortunately, Move doesn't yet compete. The company's shooter feels laggy and unresponsive as I attempt to gun down robotic targets. The boxing game is not one-to-one, but gestural-based, and slow. Nearly everything feels redone, but somehow half-baked.
The exceptions are the augmented reality games, which project gameplay graphics onto real-time views of players using Sony's camera. These are all flimsy affairs -- mini-games of the sort that sold Wii consoles three years ago, but as I watch people having fun while they shave the heads of goofy virtual monsters, I can't help but think how much my kids are going to love this stuff. It's fluffy, sure, but families will eat it up and there's just enough freshness that critics like me can't say that Sony copied Nintendo, at least not blatantly. Just as importantly, it's responsive and it feels good.
Move's hardware is more than competent and there's certainly a lot of potential, but most of it remained untapped at the event. This opinion is seconded by the developer, which is working closely with the device. They tell me that they believe it will ultimately outperform the Wii remote in responsiveness and say that their own tests are already proving that true. I ask if there is the kind of lag I experienced at Sony's demo and they say no, that it's very fast and reliable when programmed correctly. They add that it still has some calibration issues like the Wii remote, but that it's still an improvement.
Natal, though -- the motion offering from Microsoft -- not so much. The same studio rep calls Natal a big, buggy mess. "It's sh*t," he adds, saying that it just doesn't work as promised. That it's slow and that the camera is imprecise, which he notes, is causing some major development woes.
He refers to a development conference Microsoft held not so long ago in which Peter Molyneux of Fable fame (presently, creative director at Microsoft Game Studios) took the stage and attempted to demo the publisher's much-publicized Milo Natal project. Molyneux apparently called someone from the audience to the stage and asked them to interact with the virtual boy, but it didn't go to plan. Natal's camera failed to see the person accurately because he was wearing a black trench coat. After some fiddling, he was asked to remove his trench coat and -- whoops -- wore a black shirt underneath. When it still didn't work, he was invited to take his seat again.
Next, Molyneux said that Milo could interact with illustrations drawn to paper and scanned by the camera. He asked the audience for suggestions. "You could see him cocking his head and listening for the right key words, and then finally he heard something the game would recognize," my development source explains. It was a cat. So he invited someone from the audience to ascend the steps to the stage and illustrate the feline on paper. When Natal attempted to scan the horribly scribbled drawing, it instead picked up the Abercrombie & Fitch logo on the person's sweater.
I laugh at this but try to play devil's advocate. Okay, I say, so it's obvious you're not a fan, but somebody must be getting this thing to work well or it wouldn't be on the slate to ship this year. I ask if he knows of any other studios struggling with Natal.
"How about Rare and Lionhead? They're just going to try to make launch and then they're going to patch everything later," he says, laughing.
I'm very interested in the platform, but I haven't entrenched myself in Natal development. Later, when I bump into a colleague, I ask them if they have heard any behind-the-scenes rumblings about development trouble with Microsoft's casual entry device. He turns to me and says that yes, he has -- that studios are telling him they're struggling to get it working.
It's anecdotal and unproven and I know from experience that it's never so black and white. The fact of the matter is, the Wii remote shipped with so many problems that Nintendo was forced to release an upgrade device that even needs constant recalibration. And Wii MotionPlus? Word on the street is that the heat from your hands de-calibrates the sensor. It's still not perfect by any means, but it's workable, and I think that by the time Natal ships, it will be workable too, even if developers have to kill themselves getting it there. Lest we not forget that there are some amazing games for Wii and whether by ingenuity or simple trickery, the motion controls sometimes feel fantastic.
What I do find very telling about both some of these public unveilings and secret murmurings, however, is just how difficult it seems to be to nail motion controls. People love to shrug off Nintendo's work. Hell, I've done it. But for all the primitive graphics surrounding the Wii Sports experience, there's some pretty fancy handiwork powering the gameplay controls -- and I think Microsoft and Sony are only now discovering just how fancy it really is.
Speaking of Nintendo, everyone seems to be waiting for word on the company's next system. It's the go-to question in interviews. "Yes, I understand Wii sold a bazillion units in December alone, but hey -- when's Wii HD coming?" Yeah -- I'm guilty of that one, too. And it's no different when I talk to developers and publishers, nearly all of whom receive the obligatory query about new hardware -- what and when? I always resign myself to the no comment or the no idea, but at GDC I struck a bit of a niblet when a developer said Nintendo told him it would be ready to roll with Wii 2 in 2012. Anybody with a brain would probably guess as much, but it is even so always refreshing to hear so from a semi-official source.
Of course, the NPD numbers just hit and the Wii dominance is at an end. Outsold in February by Xbox 360, ending a forever-long winning streak. And PS3 was not far behind, either. We'll just have to see if Nintendo isn't willing to move that date forward.
Takeaways so far: Sony has made a dildo-controller that feels like a gimped Wii remote. Natal sucks. And Wii 2 is in no rush. At least, that's how it goes in pure black and white and if you believe everything you hear at this year's Game Developers Conference. Of course, if you do, then maybe you'll also believe that GameCube's fill rate is much better than Xbox's and therefore Nintendo's hardware is superior. Right? Source