July 08, 2008

Both Sides Of The Story

The press have recently published many stories about British Universities not equipping gaming graduates with the right skills for careers in the gaming industry. For example, according to the industry campaign group "Games Up?", there are only 4 courses accredited by Skillset, the government body which monitors such courss, out of a total of 81. At the same time, we often hear that the industry is facing a problem finding suitably qualified graduates to work for them.

But there is another side to the story.I discovered an article by Cliff Harris (Positech Games) recently which argues that one reason for staff shortages is that companies fail to take the necessary steps to look after their present staff which results in huge staff turnovers. Since experienced programmers are the hardest to find, here are some of the points he makes with them in mind:

If the experienced people didn’t leave, you wouldn’t need the graduates!
It’s sad the way many games companies work. They deal with horribly high staff turnover as a matter of course. Staff turnover is a devestating problem for a knowledge based business. A new coder probably achieves nothing of any real value for the first few weeks, little for a month or two, and is probably only really working as a games coder by the end of their first year. To become really experienced at the practice (not theory) of games development takes at least 3 years. By then he (almost always a ‘he’ sadly) is sick of his job and often keen to leave, and so the company promotes everyone and hires a new graduate. Staff turnover is always bad, but for programmers it’s unusually damaging. It’s easier to find your own bugs than the last guys bugs, especially if the last guy isn’t here to ask him what the hell he was thinking when he wrote that stuff. If your company doesn’t adhere to coding standards, it’s even worse. Pay the experienced devs more. They are worth more. they can find the bugs the others can’t. their code is better, faster, more stable. Don’t worry if some coders earn treble what others earn, this is very often justified.

Give them a decent working environment.
They stare at monitors a lot so if they need ones that cost $1,000, then that’s what they need. Deal with it. It’s worth it. Ditto chairs. Same for PC’s : AAA games take ages to compile. if you don’t want to pay coders to sit and eat donuts while the code compiles, buy them the fastest PC’s you can get. This will "save" money.

Make everyone go home at 6PM.
Abolish the stupidity of the long-hours culture. If you can’t concentrate on emails after 8 hours, what makes you think that a programmer can write decent C++ code without bugs after that many hours in a day. Less tired coders = less bugs = faster dev time, and happier developers.

Train the devs.
If they want half a dozen C++ book on expenses, let them have them. It’s trivial in cost terms in terms of increased productivity. Most coders want to learn. so support them.
Either give developers individual offices, let them work from home, or get everyone noise cancelling headphones. Maybe 1 in 10 programmers can work well in a busy noisy office, but the other 9 will be working less efficiently than they would be in a quiet office, and getting annoyed about it .

June 04, 2008

"Die, Gameplayer, Die...And Die Again!"

"Ninja Gaiden 2", the much anticipated follow up to an extrordinary game released back in 2005, rolls out this week. As its creator announced he was leaving publishers Techmo due to unpaid royalties, it looks like we won't be seeing anymore of this unique series but hopefully there will be many more creative games from Tomonobu Itagaki to look forward to in the future.

I must admit I found it quite frustrating to play the first Ninja Gaiden game : it clearly wasn't designed with the average gamer in mind (you die very frequently and the first "boss" you meet is frankly impossible!) but, at the same time, it felt really fresh, challenging and rewarding if you had enough patience to keep going. Additionally, I found it very amusing that here was a game that was intentionally difficult rather than accidentally difficult ! My saving grace came from the Internet, where I discovered there was an easy setting you could unlock for the game. In order to unlock it, you needed to die three times in succession right at the beginning of the game : having done this, you were then offered the "Ninja Dog Difficulty" setting : from that point onwards , I was teased, ridiculed and humiliated by the game and left with no illusions that I was a coward and wimp for choosing the setting. Needless, to say, I proceeded to enjoy and finish the game!

From a business perspective, however, its very important not to alienate and frustrate your audience: sales can sometimes be literally doubled simply by ensuring that all players' skills are catered for. I know a lot of people were unaware of the existence of the easy setting and gave up in frustration as a result. On the other hand, lots of hardcore gamers were thrilled and delighted by the unique game challenge. As a game consultant, I know I would have been arguing vehemently for the inclusion of the easy setting from the beginning at the main menu but, looking back in hindsight, sometimes we need to make allowances and exceptions for certain games : this industry badly needs games that challenge the norm, push the limits and move the boundaries : after all, thats how the industry grows and moves forward, not by producing yearly sequels.

The demo was released on Xbox live marketplace (Europe not US) today : much the same game as the original but with enhanced graphics and spectacular new moves and weapons. There are serious camera issues this time around, however. This could have been fixed by simply moving the camera's initial position slightly back/up : or even by allowing the player to push in the left controller stick to set the camera position themselves...maybe this will done for the retail version?

June 01, 2008

"You've Got 90 Seconds...."

I was talking on the web phone to one of my clients yesterday, trying to persuade him to give his team project a bit more time. I added that releasing the game in its current state would be commercial suicide : after a very heated discussion, he agreed to sleep on it and resume discussions on Monday. Relieved and tired after a busy week, I flopped onto the sofa and lazily scanned the TV channels for some good old entertainment : I ended up watching "America's Got Talent", the latest reality TV hit show where 3 "celebrity" judges vote, criticise and demean the efforts of amateur singers, dancers, magicians and comedians who are all competing for the top prize of one million dollars. It suddenly occured to me that , if you swapped the artists with game developers/publishers and made them sell their game to the media the same way, the end result would not be very far off from how the business works in real life... Confused? Well, think of it this way :

- The three celebrity judges represent the games media : the journalists that can make or break your "act" : if you dont have them on your side then you are in big trouble : they will push their big red buzzers which make distracting grating sounds and stop you in your tracks. If you happen to make it through the 90 seconds allowed then you are in with a chance...sleeping with the judges or bribing them for good reviews sometimes helps though!

- And what do these judges really know about what it takes anyway? Piers Morgan, a former successful newspaper editor, David Hasselhorf, an adequate actor and awful singer who got lucky when he discovered Pamela Anderson looked quite good in a red swimsuit, and Sharon Osbourne, daughter of Don Arden, one of the most succesful music industry managers ever...good start for her career in the same business.. what do they know ? The honest answer is : it doesnt matter ! The show is essentially entertainment and they are well known so its their faces and characters that sell the show.

- If you get the crowd on your side (or the game buying public) then that might influence the judges to change their mind. After all , no-one wants to upset the public, do they? We need their money!

I could go on forever making comparisons but the point is this : you dont get a second chance nowadays so tread carefully before you step out onto the stage! Yesterday, for example, I played a demo of "Crash Time " a racing game made by RTL games. In an already overcrowded and competetive racing market, this game looks, sounds and plays like an overgrown wart on my ingrown toe nail! (I wonder if the audience and people at home will laugh at that comment?) - it contained some ok ideas but presentation wise, I was asleep at the wheel after 30 seconds. Hit the buzzer... "NEXT PLEASE...!!!!!"
Wounded pride and lots of tears from the stage, no doubt! But as Simon Cowell says: "No-one makes or forces them to get on that stage in front of millions of people and humiliate themselves!". It does seems such a huge waste of money and resources though ....

May 29, 2008

The Art Of Collection (or "Shoot The Pigeons")

You can often (not always!) tell how good a game is by the length of time you play it . Most games will try to prolong your game experience using collectible "items" which are collected by the player. These items come in many shapes and forms from skulltullas and heart pieces (Zelda), dog tags (Metal gear) to shooting pigeons (GTA4) : even Xbox achievements and PSN Home trophies could be considered types of collectibles.

Trouble is, for this technique to work, you need to reward the player adequately or they simply wont bother. In "Assasins Creed", for example, you can collect flags from each of the different areas in the game which is fun to start with as you jump around the well designed cathedrals and buildings but there is no reward at all (although, if you play the 360 version, you get an achievement!) : no new combat moves, no new area of the map unlocked, no extras (artwork etc) so what's the point? Where's the initial incentive?

Sometimes you get rewarded but the reward is of little value to the player... obtaining 200 stars in Mario Galaxy takes a lot of patience and time but the reward is the ability to replay the WHOLE game from the beginning to end with Luigi, another character. Umm... no thanks! How about an "unlimited flying abilty" or perhaps the ability to change into any Mario Costume (ie "Bee Mario" or "Ghost Mario") at any time you like? That's surely more of an incentive? Beating Shadow of the Colossus (PS2) means you can eat lizard tails and maximise your grip meter until you are finally able to climb to the "secret" garden.... what a letdown to find just a magic fruit which , if eaten, damages yours health permanently ... thank you, how very thoughtful of you!

There are thousands of examples of bad "collectible design" ... most of them seem to be added as an afterthought or quickly glued on at the end of a development cycle. For me, getting collectible design right is crucial if a game is going to be successful. I can think of two great examples to argue my case :

(1) Call Of Duty 4 : finding all the computers in the game means you can mess around with all the graphical settings, enhance special effects (eg explosions) and obtain umlimited ammo. Infinity Ward even took the time to insert a stats item in the pause menu so you could see how many you were still missing from a particular level. Also note that to obtain the rewards didnt mean that you had to collect them all...
(2) GTA4 - Rockstar, the "masters of Collectibles", took it to a whole new level. Simple as it sounds , instead of finding a collectible, they made you LISTEN for it (pigeons) as well... a stroke of genius , and so simple. Also, at nightime , you can see an orange light glowing around the pigeons. And what do you get for finding all 200? Find out yourself , its well worth it, I can assure you!

Is it a coincidence that both these games are huge top sellers ? I certainly dont think so... it's simply masterful design from skillfull, clever and dedicated developers.. nothing else. I have to go now.. I am off to find some more pigeons to shoot…

May 27, 2008

The Power Of Emotional Storytelling

I will never ever forget going to see "ET" at the cinema many years ago. Even though I was still a teenager, when the end of the film arrived and Elliot said goodbye to ET, I was completely in tears. Using an 8 year old actor and a well-made piece of plastic, Stephen Spielberg had found a way deep inside of me : I started to think of a good friend I had lost the year before in a car accident, of my old school friends who were all heading off in different directions in life and who I would never see again. I just felt this overwhelming feeling of loss : a realisation that childhood was finally over , that real life was not so sweet and innocent after all, that dreams don't really come true and that we all get older. All because of a particular scene acted out on film.

Steven Spielberg may be a successful film director but, for me, he is essentially a storyteller, telling his story visually using his camera and actors. And this is exactly what game producers / directors also do too … they just use different tools and a different medium to do it in…

I hope its agreed that storytelling in the film medium is different from storytelling in games : GTA4 may have a great story but its also kind of hard to appreciate it to any degree as its so disconnected because of its sandbox genre and game length. In addition, just as everyone going to see Indiana Jones at the movies this month will expect a rollercoaster ride of adventure and excitement and nothing else, it would be also be wrong to expect an amazing story when we get to play Gears Of War 2 this November!

But where are those games that move us emotionally and make us cry? I have to think really hard to come up with great examples of game storytelling … Hideo Kojima seems to be the nearest equivalent to Spielberg in terms of storytelling but his stories are so interwoven with such complex plots twists that I just cant keep up : Bioshock was a great story but too far fetched for me personally : there was little I could relate to in its underwater world setting. Even the long running and popular Zelda series story failed to produce a single tear over its lifetime. There have ,of course, been special moments like Aeris dying in Final Fantasy 7, the clever and unexpected plot twist of Jade Empire, Tidus realising he is not “living” and therefore must say goodbye to his girlfriend in FFX etc but nothing on the same scale as "ET", "Saving Private Ryan", "Ghost" etc

So,despite enhanced graphic capabilities and bigger storage capacities, the story tellers of today, (Lost Oddysey, Blue Dragon, Mass Effect, Too Human, Fable and many others that spring to mind ), all seem to opt for the action and fictional kind of story… where "x" and "y" discover they have special powers etc etc and fight the evil boss who is destroying the universe and they finally kill him and the earth is ok again etc etc …let's try going straight for the tears by using more real human characters armed with nothing but their frailty. Let's affect the player emotionally more often : it won't suit all the games out there but for those that it does , you can rest assured that you'll never again need to worry about the cost next time you need to "phone home"...

May 26, 2008

The Tricky Art Of Criticism

Sometimes I feel guilty for criticising others peoples work : after all, computer games are very difficult to make, involving a lot of time, money and hard work. In addition, one of the many things wrong with this world nowadays is that everyone seems to have an opinion about everything , usually derogatory and unfair, even when they don’t possess all the relevant information necessary to make a valid and unbiased point. I personally make my living tearing apart others peoples work and effort, finding faults and being over obsessed with quality issues. In fact, I carry out most of my work alone because its easier for my work to be done without facing hurt egos and pride and without confronting a programmer's personal wrath and anger.

But usually I find my guilt disappears quickly when I think of the poor mother or father who go into a games shop and buy a particular game because their little Johnny has seen it on TV or at the cinema or because its the latest craze / fashion at school. After handing over their hard earned money, they discover its pure rubbish and neither Johnny nor Mum and Dad are remotely happy. Its simply a betrayal of consumer confidence … a rip off frankly .. If you are charging large amounts of money for your product then I believe the customer has a right to a certain level of satisfaction just as you are entitled to be rewarded for making that product.

"Penny Arcade" (you can find their site HERE) make their living publishing fantastic game cartoons on the internet. In addition, they also write a column on the same site containing very critical observations on games and the industry that make them. Recently, however, they decided to change direction and make their very own game. Released last week on Xbox Live Arcade, "Penny Arcade Adventures Epsiode One: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness" is actually a good first time effort containing the excellent artwork and humour for which they are well known. As a game, however, it contains many design weaknesses and falls into the usual traps of game development. Normally, i would just say "Good effort ..good luck with the next one (but dont give up the day job!)". However, they decided to charge double the normal rate to pay to download this game! Charging 1600 MS points means its currently the second most expensive arcade game on the marketplace and this entitles the gamer to expect a certain value for its money. At the end of the day, its simply does not deliver this value at all.

Very harsh and critical perhaps but now I suppose at least they know how it feels like to be on the recieving end of critical opinions...

May 25, 2008

Playing Games Of Patience

This week I’ve been playing through free downloadable demos and trial games, trying to figure out a common factor that makes nearly all of them distinctly average and dull game experiences rather than evoking a “wow, what fun, I must buy this” feeling. After a while, I came up with the theory that very few games made these days take into account that the “average” patience possesed by the “average” gamer seems to have halved in the last couple of years.

Lets take 3 factors into account here :
The “average” gamer now has more gaming choices and options available than everbefore. Gone are the days of putting one game into the console : we now play increasingly online, download demos and trial games, we play free PC games and we buy with credit…Some of the lucky gamers out there can play all 3 consoles and a pc on the same tv.. (though not simultaneously … yet!)
The gamer has more entertainment options than ever before … from internet,mobiles, ipods, cable tv and dvds.
Everyday life has become more global but , as a result, more stressful : longer and more demanding working hours , more complex family lives etc. With mobiles commonplace , we are constantly available at all times of the day…

Add these 3 factors together and you get, in my opinion, diminished gamer patience and that means you, as a developer or publisher , have roughly 1 minute to impress the gamer before your product is deleted , traded in or just plain forgotten about . And this is not just my theory : Shigeru Miyamoto said of Zelda Twiilight Princess : “ there are fewer and fewer people who are interested in playing a big role-playing game like Zelda” . How true : despite being a true Zelda fan myself I found that i could no longer stomach the endless monotonous chain of events I had seen so many times before ….talk to x , find object , go to dungeon, get stuck, kill boss, find next object… I screamed for something new to happen but got given another dungeon to contemplate instead. What was once accepted is no longer tolerated...

And so back to the free downloadable demos and trial games I tried out : they all contain one or more of the following errors that infuriate the gamer incessantly - not a good start for your very expensive investment :
Dont force your story on the gamer
- Let the player press a button to skip the movie/sequence. If they want to watch it , they will !
Loading times !
- Loading times are a design issue..not a technical issue! Sort this out early in the design cycle :
no gamer wants to sit and watch a loading screen for too long!Especially nowadays...
Save points and checkpoints
- We now have technology that enables the developer to insert as many save points as they
want… don’t make the gamer start again… and again.. especially from a place they last saw an
hour ago..
Customise, Customise and Customise
- Let the gamer decide how the game will be played : the more game options available, the more
likely they are able to change the game to suit their individual style and abilty = more

All this writing has got me very frustrated and annoyed : so I going off to take it out on the poor inhabitants of Liberty City!

The Rusty Exhaust Pipe (or “The Cost Of Health Care In the USA”)

I’ve now had 2 weeks to play test GTA and get comfortable with it. While I was playing this game, I often had this picture of a second hand racing car in my mind : its engine is upgraded and fixed, the exterior is given a new paint finish and the whole car is thoroughly spring cleaned and polished . The car is now ready for the new racing season and will easily thrash the other contenders despite the presence of a rusty exhaust pipe that was left unchecked in the frantic rush to get the car ready for the next racing season.

Earlier, I wrote that lots of things had been cut from the previous versions ( custom soundracks, planes, driving tests etc) which I put down to the need for a new direction for the series. Now I believe that they simply ran out of time to implement these features or were unable to put them in because of lack of disc space. There is also a peculiar lack of “polish” missing from the racing section of the game : often there are no races available and races where you do actually race are so easy to finish because all you need is a good car : the AI opposition always have lower quality cars and they can’t drive around corners to save their lives..

But the thing that surprised me most was the “rusty exhaust pipe” itself : the constant setting “cost of health care” . I was unable to find its value in the game but assume it is calculated as a percentage of your current money amount . Needless to say, I found that each time I died in this game ( I am at 55% complete) it cost me 10,000 dollars to be fixed. So what? Well, when you are doing missions , you are awarded anything from 1k to 10k : and lets not forget the amazing 500 $ the game awards me for making the effort to do some races and win after 5 laps! So health care is expensive in the states? Well , of course, but this is a game isnt it? How frustrating for a game to put you in a situation where you are encouraged to do anything you want, wherever you want, and whenever you want but, sorry game player, its going to cost you a lot of your hard earned game money if you fail?

I bet this setting was debated furiously in the boardrooms in Rockstar Offices : obviously someone argued for a harder game and more respect for the game surroundings and won but there has to be a limit somewhere whereby if the gameplay is being sacrificed then the constant must be changed accordingly.

Enough said… Now I need to go out and buy some rust remover…

A Classic Case Of Serious Burnout

The gaming market is getting increasingly diverse and fragmented. The current market has 3 consoles games, pc games, retro games, arcade games, portable games (Ds,PsP), mobile phones games and PS2 games (last year, 14 million people worldwide bought a new PS2!) : all these markets compete for the gamer’s money and time against other entertainment mediums like music, dvds and tv. So obviously new games need to keep the gamer’s attention as long as possible before they move on to other things.

So why are Criterion games still working on "Burnout Paradise"? In January they released a great game for PS3 and 360 and sold over a million copies : quite a feat in an already crowded racing market, and particularly notable for its January release. But, instead of concentrating on the next release for next year, they have continued to focus on the same game. This August, 7 months after the original release date, they are releasing an update which adds motorbikes and island expansions (see photo above!). Unfortunately, updates like this cost a lot of money and time : in addition to creating and designing it, the update needs to be tested vigourously ( an earlier update was cancelled due to bugs) and go through the lengthy process of certification. But above all, how many people will have moved on to Grand Turismo 5 , GTAIV or other new games? How many will have sold or traded in their copy? After all, you can't purchase or use the update without the original game!

Ironically, "burnout" is also a psychological term for "experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest". Enough said , back to GTAIV : I need to finish it before I trade it in for MGS4.

The Price Of Exclusivity

Despite a record year for the industry, it’s a fact that making games is getting increasingly expensive. Many companies struggle to cope with the financial risks and one result of this has been that most games get released in every format possible : PS3 ,360, Wii, DS, PSP, PC and Mobiles all get their designated versions so the publisher can keep afloat.
Next month another big budget game is released : "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots" is the last in the Metal Gear series, a series that goes back all the way to 1986. Despite its past successes, Hideo Kojima, creator, producer and director of the series acknowledges that the latest game was the most difficult to make : there were numerous production problems facing his team such as adapting to new and complex hardware, story challenges , high definition issues and a worldwide release. "It took a long time to finish.I even thought about giving up," says Kojima. "But I had to finish it for the fans."
And so he did, at a cost not far off 100 million dollars. Sony somehow managed to persuade the publisher Konami to remain exclusive to the Playstation platform and not release the game in any other format. But with such a high production cost, this exclusivity came at a price. In Japan yesterday, kotaku.com covered the worldwide press launch of the game and discovered that it was not just a press conference to publicize the game:- There was an advertisement for "Regain" energy drink. Old Snake drinks the energy drink and becomes the young Snake of old. "Regain" goes on sale in Japan on June 10th.- A metal MGS4 duck alarm clock will be going on sale at the end of July.- An official MSG4 Sony cell phone with a "MGS4 Salaryman" cell phone game will be on sale shortly.- An in-game MGS4 branded Motorbike from motorcycle maker Triumph... I expect that will be on sale soon..
The sky is the limit it seems : may I suggest Snakes' Tuxedo fashion range, lego models of Metal Gear, a MGS cardboard box, a mobile phone with in-built codec ? Was going to suggest action models, novels and Hollywood films but it seems Konami have already done that!

More Rubbish On The Way For The Wii !

How about this quote from Peter Moore : “EA Sports has really only built a swimming pool with a deep end. It's intimidating for a lot of people to jump right in the deep end. So we're building a shallow end. “. He was talking about "All-Play", a new series of Wii-specific versions of FIFA, Tiger Woods, NBA, and Madden. In Madden, for example, you'll be able to use Mii characters and direct your team's movements by 'drawing' paths with the
Wii remote.
Sounds great in principle : making games easier for people so that they can enjoy their sports games without too much frustration, allowing them “to pick up and play and have fun immediately”, as Moore says. The problem is that many people will find this stuff offensive and patronising. It's almost as if EA are labelling a whole selection of gamers as idiots who need a controller with one button in order to make progress in their gaming. : and simply because they went out and bought a Wii console.
To me, its really about making money : squeezing more revenue from an already very successful brand name (EA Sports). Not only is it unimaginative but you can be pretty sure the end results will be games that are hastily made and developed at the cheapest price possible. EA are simply yet another company jumping on the Wii "profit bandwagon" by making sub standard software and they will get away with it because Nintendo don't seem to have any Quality Control over what is released for their console. Ironically, the main reason the Wii has succeeded is because the best software for it is made by Nintendo itself !
Finally, Peter Moore spoke of the need not to forget “ our core consumer” . In other words, the people who CAN handle complex and more difficult games (sometimes called “hardcore gamers”). Well, why not make one software title , ie “Tiger Woods Wii 09” that can be played by both by idiots and hardcore players ? On the main menu, the player could decide not only the difficulty level but whether they wanted a simple controller setting or a harder one?
That's a good idea : but I guess that would halve the potential profits...

What Game Reviews Forgot To Mention Part 2 : GTA IV

If you want to read a review on how amazing the new GTA game is, please start at metacritic.com where the game currently has an average score of 99%. For a more realistic assessment however, try here! Because GTA, despite its brilliance, is not as perfect as it hyped up to be and there are certain things you should know that game reviews forgot to mention !
In any development cycle (especially when making the big leap to next generation hardware), there comes a point in time when the developer realises that, in order to achieve what it initially set out to do , some functions, program code or allocated memory resources will need to be edited down out or cut completely. In Rockstar’s case, they also had to address the challenge of compressing all the data onto a Dvd or Blu-ray disc. Finding this balance is a major headache of game development : there is no easy solution. Sometimes things that work in theory or have worked in the past are cut just to make the game more playable.

With this in mind, here are things I have noticed are no longer in GTA :
No Car Garage: You can no longer store your favourite cars in your hideout garage next to your hideout / home.Instead,you are given a car park space on the street outside.
Some weapons have gone : no chainsaw, knuckle fist, flame thrower.
Safe houses no longer have “top ups” where you stock up on health, armour and ammo. Now you must find everything yourself.
Races must be accessed with your mobile phone. No more driving to a specific place and choosing which race you want to enter.
All the driving tests from San Andreas are no more : no car , bike , boat or plane tests.
No planes … and therefore no sky diving..
No swimming underwater
Most surprisingly, No custom soundtracks. You can play your own music but not on the “radio” like before.

In terms of gameplay, I noticed the following :
You die more often : A1 is more advanced and therefore harder to avoid.
Dying is more expensive : they seem to take more of your money when you leave hospital or get busted?
Frustration ! Despite the introduction of replaying missions on your mobile and taxis to drive you to mission points, its still very frustrating to fail a mission and then have to start from the beginning again…zzzz why could we not restart from where the mission takes place rather than from where the mission is given out ...

The game map is so detailed and real yet there are no huge play areas without traffic and people.. In San andreas we had huge areas of countryside to fool about in without worrying about police etc

Finally, the character moves around by "walking" : if you wish to run, then you must press the right button non stop . This should be the other way round : running unless pressing to walk. Walking in such a big world is a bit slow! Also, the mechanics of targeting and then fighting without guns is not well done. You often find you are hitting air rather than people.
Its worth pointing out that I am not even half way through this enormous game yet so its possible I will discover more later or be wrong on a couple of points… Its still an amazing game and most of the faults above are debatable : some will not notice them and others will . But they are simply not mentioned in any review I have seen on the internet so far.

Getting The Right Balance

Have had a bit of time to try out Wii Fit for myself and have enjoyed the experience immensely : it is obviously an entertaining concept and, especially for unfit people like myself, far more fun than going to the gym or doing press ups in the garden! However, since it is an expensive product , (almost half the price of the console and almost double the normal software price range) I do feel I have the right to demand and expect more from this product than if it was “wii sports” which came included with the console or “wii play” which came with a free controller.
Experts in fitness say it should not be taken seriously as a fitness product or as a means to lose weight but , on the other hand, Wii fit is targeted at “home” people or families having fun exercising together in the privacy of their own homes and at no extra expense. On top of that, its also fair to say that , if it were not for this product, a lot of people, myself included , would hardly be excersing at all : Jogging with Wii Fit, for example, is a hell of a lot more fun than jogging in real life. So well done Nintendo for addressing an relevant issue in a world where over half of americans today are overweight .
My problem with this product lies in the board itself : whichever way you look at it and from whatever angle, the board is really a balance / weight board. It may be harsh to describe it that way since a lot of research and time has been spent on it but that is the truth. All the exercises and games that you do in this game are measured by the allocation of your weight at a particular time. The program reminds you quite often how importance balance and posture is to obtaining a healthy body but I cant help wondering just how accurate the data produced during an exercise is. This problem is obvious when you try out many of the more amusing exercises : heading the footballs for example, can be done simply by moving your weight from side to side rather than moving your head in the right direction. Doing ski slalom is more about shifting your weight at the right time rather than obtaining the right body positioning needed to ski properly. All this means is that , rather than measuring how good someone is at skiing or yoga , it measures how clever people are to shift their weight at the right time!
Maybe that’s too critical for such an innovative product. But it’s a product with a lot of future promise : Nintendo just need to spend a bit more time finding the right balance between entertainment and accuracy!

The Gold At The End Of The Rainbow (The Bug That Got Away - Part 2)

Since I wrote about Rainbow 6 Las Vegas 2 a few weeks ago, a few things have become apparent: Ubisoft have sold a lot of copies of the title and there are still no bug fixes available for the 360 and PS3 versions. Yesterday, however, my story found a new lease of life :
Activision announced that the Modern Warfare Variety Map Pack for COD4 has set a new record for the number of paid downloads - over one million downloads in the first nine days since release! Wow! - 1 million downloads @ 800 points each (approx $10) equals 10 million dollars in revenue in 9 days! And let's not forget the PS3 version is released next week...
And what has this got to do with Rainbow 6 ? Well, its a pot of gold that Ubisoft wont be able to dip its lazy hand into for the time being! Having rushed the release and gone for the quick profit option at the expense of the game quality, the consumer is feeling let down and disappointed so they wont be rushing to download any future map packs! Obviously, a very costly bug that got away!

“Don’t Reveal All Of Your Special Tricks At Once!”

The ability to keep the gamer interested from start to finish is one of the golden rules of game development. Unfortunately, in reality, so much time is spent on getting the graphics engine to work the right way at the right time, that thinking about what the game is actually like to play is forgotten about and the game falls into the “repetition” trap: the player ends up doing the same routines over and over again with very little reward or incentive and eventually gives up.
Rockstar Games , however, never fall into this trap and always manage to keep their players mesmerised. One of my favourite moments in gaming was back in 2004, playing San Andreas : Grand Theft Auto : after being taught the basics of the gameplay, you are then dropped off by 2 crooked police officers in the countryside in the middle of nowhere…. only then does it dawn on you what a huge vast world is waiting for you to explore : 3 big cities and enormous areas of sea and countryside.
The same technique is found in “Bully”, another Rockstar game : You learn the basics in a closed in area of the school and then, when you are ready to advance , the school gates open and you are free to go wherever you please with your newly acquired skateboard or bike. Throughout both these two games, you are constantly unlocking new options, new techniques and new challenges.
These two games share other things in common as well: an almost identical game pattern and design, they use the same graphics engine and they share the same hardware problem: simply put, these games are almost too advanced for the consoles they were designed for. In San Andreas , all the data was streamed so that you never encountered loading problems except for “mission” data. On both the PS2 and Xbox , however, this meant that, at heavy data traffic areas, such as when you had a 6 star rating and 5 police cars were trying to arrest you , the hardware was unable to keep up and the game slowed down. Also when you were riding a fast motorbike, certain scenery (such as flowers and grass) was constantly popping up as the data struggled to be loaded in time. I mention all this , because : Bully started its life on the PS2 and has now been ported to the Xbox 360 and Wii. "Bully" is such a good game that it needs the right hardware to do it justice and yet both new versions are mediocre …. A little graphical enhancement and a few extra missions and not much else. On both versions , we find many graphical glitches and popups…
And my point? Well, you cant argue with sales figures… Both titles are extremely successful and deservedly so … I guess my point is that Rockstar, having decided to go ahead with Bully back in 2004 , should have developed the game for next generation consoles? If you are going to make such a good game, make sure you do your best to maximise its potential by keeping within the hardware limitations. If Bully had originally been developed for PS3 and 360, I am positive it would have been even more successful and nobody would be complaining about bugs and loading times. In addition , it makes you wonder if the new Grand Theft Auto game will be so ambitious and awesomely clever that the poor consoles wont be able to cope….

The Bug That Got Away

Rainbow 6 Las Vegas 2 is a worthy sequel. However, having said that, I encountered one surprising bug that suggested to me that all was not well within the Ubisoft QA Department. The bug I am referring to is found in the multiplayer mode. As you log on to Xbox live your gamertag account data is checked in the server database and you are awarded bonus “EXP” depending on much you played / achieved in the previous game. Having no choice in whether you wanted this bonus or not, you then discover that the achievement for “Getting to Private First Class Rank” has not unlocked even though your new rank is much higher.
Achievements are really just a handful of variables that are examined by a database of criteria. When the variable in question, (in this case, EXP) reaches the required criteria the program executes a procedure and the achievement is then unlocked.In other words, If “exp” equals or is more than “exp needed to reach x rank” then unlock achievement. So simple… a few lines of code! So how on earth did QA miss it? Did they not test this game on a 360 with a logged on account?
The answer seems to be that they were too busy fixing even more important things, like graphical glitches, buggy AI and erratic lighting shadows. What started off as a story mode with 4 player co-op like its predecessor ended up with just 2 player co-op because cutting this feature down was the only way to eliminate as many bugs as possible in the program code. In order to keep to the release date , QA ran out of time : which brings us back to the simple achievement bug : it probably was tested before and worked but it was not tested again with the new watered down versions. It’s referred to as “Regression testing” : it should have been checked again but there was no time left.I am unable to find accurate sales figures for the first Rainbow Las Vegas game but it seems to be around 4 million copies worldwide with well over half of these on the 360 Console. What a shame that a big budget and profitable franchise like Rainbow 6 wasn’t given a bit more time to ensure the creases could be ironed out. Clumsy pre- production planning or perhaps a release schedule designed to get the game out before GTAIV arrived?

Ubisoft have announced that 2 million copies of the Rainbow 6 sequel have been sold worldwide in roughly 2 weeks! So congratulations to them but I will still stand by my evaluation above : it’s a good enough game but it could have and should have been a lot better. According to Kotaku.com, the PS3 version of the game was even more problematic, with some users being unable to play online at all for a period of time. Maybe Ubisoft should tread a little more carefully when it comes to planning the next sequel because the stakes are getting higher : only yesterday, Mark Rein of Infinity Ward announced that roughly 1.3 million people are playing online everyday with “Call Of Duty 4” on the 360 version alone. Add to that almost another million people online with the PS3 and PC versions and you get no prizes for guessing which sequel will sell more copies when the time comes : “Call Of Duty 5 “ or “Rainbow 6 : Las Vegas 3”.