All About masterpinky2000
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce
It's been a long time since my last post! To be honest, I've been feeling a bit of generational fatigue, and although I've still been gaming every now and then, the only three games that I've really, passionately played in the last year have been Madden 13, FIFA 13, and MLB 13: The Show. In short, like a lot of gamers out there, I'm ready for some new consoles and some new franchises!
Having followed the early leaks and then the formal announcements of the PS4 and the Xbox One, and now with E3 upon us and the details more or less all filled out, I'm struck by the wisdom of a Karl Marx quotation: history repeats itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." It is remarkable, looking at this over the arc of the last twelve years, how much the competition between Sony and Microsoft has consisted of first one side, then the other, making the same mistake again and again: alienating gamers.
Flash back to E3 2006, which was a long seven years ago. The Xbox 360 had been out on the market for six months, and although it had suffered some growing pains, the fundamental business strategy behind Microsoft's second cut at the console gaming market was paying dividends. The 360 was relatively affordable, it was user-friendly, it had great online, and -- most of all -- it was built for gamers. Its best franchises were yet to appear, but we had rich previews of Gears of War (which would be released that November) and the blockbuster, show-changing announcement of Halo 3 (which would come out in Fall 2007).
In comparison, Sony's E3 2006 press conference has gone down in history as one of the most notorious flops in gaming history. A few highlights: $599. Rrriiidddgggeee Rrraaacceerrr! The predictable backlash: gamers were disappointed and vowed to stay away. Sony brushed aside those comments as a few malcontents and insisted that the overall value proposition of the multimedia powerhouse (It does Blu-ray! It does internet!) would make it a huge success. Sony wasn't going to listen to its core consumer -- it was going to tell him, tell her, tell all of us what we really wanted. (In other words, it was going to pull off a trick that only one company -- Steve Jobs's Apple -- consistently and successfully pulled off in that era.)
This was what I would call the first manifestation of the Big-Tent strategy. By Big-Tent, I mean this is how the meetings went down at Sony.
Kaz Hirai: You know, no matter what, the gamers are going to buy our console. The Playstation 2 sold 100 million. We own them. Let's not focus on selling 100 million, which we're going to do no matter what. (Reality check: As of two weeks ago, PS3 had sold 77 million and counting, and it took a long, painful road to get there.) Let's focus on selling the second 100 million to families that otherwise wouldn't buy a video game console.
Ken Kutaragi: Alright, I'm going to load up this console with tons of extras. It's going to have a Blu Ray. Let's make something that people will aspire to own. I want people to see this and say, 'I will work harder to be able to afford a PS3.' (Reality check: oh wait, he actually said this.)
The Big-Tent strategy takes as a given that the core constituency will be on your side in the end, and that the groups that the business should focus on capturing are the far larger numbers of consumers who reside outside the base. This essentially is how presidential poltiics work in the United States, where the Democrats start with their 35 percent, and the Republicans with their 35 percent, and the two then wage war over the undecided middle. (At least, that's how it once was supposed to work, not trying to get into a political science discussion here.)
Of course, the problem with the gaming market, as Sony found out to its great dismay between 2006 and 2008, is that the core constituency can decamp for the other guy far faster than it had ever anticipated. Tons of gamers switched over to the 360, the Wii, or the PC while waiting for Sony to screw its head on straight and do something -- do anything -- that was gamer-focused, that paid attention and care to the needs and desires of the people who bought those 100 million PS2s. In fact, it really took until '08-'09, with the release of Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted 2, and the Playstation 3 Slim at the $299 price point, to finally bring the core constituency back onto Sony's side. And by then, Sony had lost huge amounts of time, huge amounts of cash, and -- worst of all -- huge amounts of its credibility.
The Playstation 180
They're calling it the PS4, but in my mind, with all the recent announcements, the new console should be called the Playstation 180. Sony has completely flipped the script on the new console, and largely replicated Microsoft's strategy from the start of the last generation. Here's what Sony is doing right:
1) No used-game lockdown -- this was a huge issue for gamers, and Sony got it dead right by giving people what they wanted;
2) The $399 price point -- a very affordable price for a new console and exactly where the 360 launched eight years ago, which positions PS4 to be the mainstream console of choice;
3) Show us the games! -- PS4's lineup has not been overwhelming, but it's light years ahead of Rrriiddgggeee Racer! Having an exclusive, flagship franchise (Killzone) releasing a new game on day one is huge.
These weren't hard decisions to make if Sony wanted to win gamers over. In essence, the company has learned its harsh lesson, and has made admirable adjustments.
In contrast, Microsoft has been backpedaling in the wrong direction since Sony shifted course in 2009. It is bizarre and evenly slightly sad to see a venerable company, which had finally struck upon a profitable and sound business strategy, changing. And it is even worse when every single change hurts the consumer. Locking the games so you can't sell them used? A $499 price point? These are disastrous distinctions in a world where the vast majority of franchises, especially console-movers like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and perhaps new IPs like Bungie's Destiny, have gone multi-platform. Why pay an extra $100, and lose the ability to sell a game after completion, for the privilege of playing . . . oh, largely the exact same games one gets on the other guy's console?
This, of course, is the farce half of the march of history. Somehow, somewhere in Redmond, the powers-that-be had a meeting that looked eerily like the Hirai-Kutaragi dialogue I hypothesized above. Of course, they probably added something like, "We're different than them, though. We'll do it better. We'll make it cooler, because we have Kinect and also some flashy stuff like how we can turn the console on just by talking to it." It's this sort of foolishness that ensures that history repeats itself.
Here's to hoping that by 2015-16 Microsoft will have come to its senses, and we'll finally have an Xbox that I can buy.
In this column, which is directed at hardcore sports gamers, I'd like to compare two of gaming's premiere sports franchises: Madden NFL and FIFA Soccer. Both are magnificently fun to pick up and play, but neither has ever managed to perfect the selection and development of young players in franchise mode. Perhaps I'm especially attuned to this problem because, as a fan of Cleveland sports, my favorite thing to do in a sports game is to build up a sad-sack team over the course of several years. So what do each of the games get right about young players, and what do they get wrong?
Madden NFL 12
In the newest iteration of Madden, EA introduced a revamped scouting system that precedes the NFL draft. During the season, you scout players every 4 weeks to learn a certain set of attributes. Then, at the combine, you get to learn a different set of attributes (speed and strength, in particular). Finally, you have pro days (which reveal yet another set of attributes) and then a very small number of individual workouts, which reveal all a players' ratings. Armed with all this information, you go into the draft and work your magic.
Player progression then depends on their overall potential and their playing time, with players seeing very rapid development in their first few years before levelling off and then declining in their 30s.
What Madden Gets Right
Player progression. Well, perhaps I should amend the heading to "sorta right." Player progression in Madden is superior to FIFA, for instance, because improvements in ability follow a true-to-life path: big leaps forward in the first two or three years in the league, gradual improvements for the next two or three, and then a plateau before age-related decline. FIFA, in contrast, tends to have players steadily gain 2-3 ratings points a year until they reach their plateau, which should strike anyone who watches the sport as unrealistic. Every year, we see a Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard or Mario Gotze blow up on the world stage and attain a rating 6-8 points higher in the next year. On a less extreme level, players tend to blossom between 18-25, with large and rapid gains in development during those years.
Why, then, does Madden only get progression sort of right? The game is plagued with the typical problems of the genre:
1) Insufficient performance-related decline for veterans: underachieving players between 26-32 stay at their plateau setting, regardless of in-game performance, until they suffer age-related decline.
2) Too much progression for bench players: if you aren't getting playing time, you shouldn't be improving as much as someone who's in the game. Madden adheres to this principle to some extent but doesn't get the magnitude right. If you draft two players who are 80/A at the same position in one year, the one who plays will gain 5-6 points and the one who doesn't will still gain 3-4. The gap should be larger than that and should worsen the longer a player stays on the bench. In some franchises where I've been overloaded at a position, a guy who never plays has grown to 95-97 overall while the starter plateaus at 98.
Madden is also pretty good at personalizing created players by attaching an actual, human photograph to them. (Sometimes this leads to problems, as the number of photos is limited and you will see face "twins" pop up in many draft classes.) This is a small touch but really makes you feel better than being in Year 10 of franchise mode and having half or more of your players being blank spots on the screen.
What Madden Gets Wrong
Scouting is terribly broken in Madden, and is both too easy and too hard. It's too easy, because of certain cheap exploits that remain in the game. When you're scouting players, and sort by "Potential," the game will order players by their potential even if those ratings are all locked as "?". Thus, you have a free and easy way to see which late-round draft picks will have A potential and be most likely to develop into stars, leading to horrifically unrealistic drafts where you can routinely grab multiple 80/A players (who will develop into 90+ stars in two years) in Round 3 or later.
On the other hand, scouting without exploits is too hard, because the game does not give you enough scouting information. In particular, you can only discover the speed and strength ratings of 20 players via the Combine. This is patently ridiculous -- the hard thing for scouts to uncover is knowledge of the game, play recognition, and technique, not raw physical abilities like speed and strength.
Scouting would be more realistic if the series introduced significant error to scouting evaluations, particularly of hard-to-evaluate traits such as potential or play recognition. Thus, while players' physical abilities would be known (with a high degree of accuracy), players' potential would be evaluated by scouts with some margin for error. Thus, a player who has 4.3 speed and a scouted potential of A would almost certainly have elite speed, but their potential could vary anywhere between A and C.
This would also give the computer a fair chance in the game. Over time, by exploiting scouting, you can develop a 95 OVR team while everyone else in the league regresses to 84-86 OVR. This makes for an unrealistic experience where the talent level around the league is extremely diluted with the exception of a concentrated pocket of superstars on your squad. Exacerbating this trend is the fact that the game does not incorporate holdouts or salary disputes, so if you lock up your late-round draft picks to 7-year deals (for 230K a year), they often develop into 95+ superstars while making the rookie minimum.
FIFA Soccer 12
FIFA's another EA product that received a revamped player scouting and development system this year. In the newest iteration, you hire scouts. The scouts then go on trips to various countries around the globe to find players between 14-16 years of age and develop them in Youth Academy. Once they reach 16 or 17, they must be signed to the senior squad and then receive playing time to develop. Progression is somewhat slow and depends more heavily on performance, so the only way to achieve stellar progression (e.g., 4-5 rating points in a year) is to play a young lad constantly and also insure that he's performing at his peak on the pitch.
What FIFA Gets Right
Very little. It's a new system, so I may be a little harsh on EA, but the new Youth Academy is pretty poor. One thing that I approve of is the fact that the system appropriately tailors progression to performance -- only stellar work will earn a player quick progression to star level (which is far too easy to achieve in a series like Madden, where you can become an All-Pro-caliber starter while riding the bench).
Another is the mechanics of scouting. Sending a scout to a specific country, and then having players from that specific country, accentuates the global reach of soccer.
What Fifa Gets Wrong
The game's two biggest problems are:
1) The new system simply does not produce enough high-quality players. This is a huge problem with a lot of sports games: in Year 1 of a manager mode, how many players are rated 85+? Quite a lot, though not an overwhelming number. In Year 20, how many are 85+? Much fewer. At a minimum, games should insure that youth development continues to produce talent on par with what currently exists in the world. After all, how likely is it that in 20 years, the world supply of elite soccer talent will diminish? If anything, given the increase in population, training and sports science, one would expect more and more talents to crop up (particularly from developing parts of the world that are currently under-scouted).
2) Development relies too much on first teams. Barcelona is famous for its well-oiled development machine, which includes not just its legendary youth academy but also its Barcelona B team (which plays in a lower division). It makes no sense for Barcelona to scout in FIFA 12, because it is rich enough to just buy talents when they are fully developed, and the cost of developing talent itself is to give first-team starting opportunities to players who are far inferior to the rest of the roster. The best players I've ever seen coming out of the Youth Academy are rated 69 or 70 as 16-17 year-olds, and would not be good enough to player for a world-class side until they are 20-22. However, they will never develop sufficiently between 16-17 and 20-22 unless they have somewhere to play. In the real world, this development occurs with B teams or with de facto loan partnerships (e.g., teams in other countries that have very good relationships with elite European clubs who will take their young players on loan to develop them). FIFA does let you loan out young players, but it's only part of the equation, and is not enough to account for all the ways in which real clubs are developing high-caliber talent.
There are few things more disappointing than picking up a game that has received stellar reviews only to discover that it simply isn't very good. Or rather, it isn't good for you-- it's not necessarily the critics' fault that your tastes are different. Of course, over the years, one learns which sites tend to provide the best reviews (or at least the ones that most conform to one's own idiosyncratic tastes). So which one do you trust the most?
In my experience, here are some differences I've noticed between a few prominent sites.
I have to start with these guys, right? Since they're the hosts of this particular blog post, I'll do them the kindness of counting their strengths first.
Overall, I find that Gamespot provides review scores that come closest to my own preferences for games. In particular, they do a great job rating sequels, and take it more seriously than others, dinging games a bit if they don't innovate enough. A great example of this is Bioshock 2, which received a very fair 8.5 here.
Above: Look familiar? It's probably because you had to take down 10-12 of these Big Daddies already in Bioshock.
On the other hand, some sites have a consistent "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" attitude toward sequels. That is, if a sequel provides more of what the original does, then it automatically warrants the same (or better) score. However, I've always felt that a sequel usually fails to capture the full impact of the first game. This effect happens in other media, like film or books, but is especially severe in games, because games are almost always a series of repetitive acts chained together by a narrative. Thus, by the time you play a sequel for a game, you're not just doing the same thing one more time -- you've already done the core game mechanic, be it shooting, or platforming, or hitting a baseball thousands of times before. Do you really love it so much that you can do it another two thousand times without a fundamental change, or at least a substantial wrinkle, in the formula?
I also think they have a really solid rating scale, one that IGN more or less wholly adopted recently. Gamespot goes from 0.0 (ostensibly, I've never seen it) to 10.0, with 0.5 increments. This scale allows for more nuance than a five-star system, which tends to glob too many games together (especially in the four-star range, which seems to become the default for a decently fun game with high production values). But it also doesn't aspire toward an unattainable precision, as in a scale with 0.1 increments. (Is that 9.4 demonstrably superior to the 9.3 that came out a month ago, yet somehow not quite as good as this 9.5?)
With that being said, this site has its issues. One is the dark side of the site's appreciation for innovation, which is that it sometimes hands out a harsh review (meaning below 8.0 for a AAA title) to make a point about a series' failure to improve dramatically. There are a few notable examples that come to mind, most recently the surprising 7.5 doled out to Zelda: Skyward Sword. Gamespot has been growing increasingly caustic toward Zelda in recent years, and Skyward Sword's score must have felt surreal to those fans who were up in arms about Twilight Princess's "low" 8.8 in 2006. Both titles have Metacritic scores of 93 or above, which suggests Gamespot's serious departure from mainstream opinion regarding the series.
Of course, the other negative is the site's arguably problematic relationship with its biggest advertisers. The famous controversy regarding Jeff Gerstmann's firing -- which coincided with his 6.5 takedown of Kane & Lynch, which was prominently splashed across the front page at the time -- has left a lasting stain on the site's reputation, and I always wonder a little about the reviews that I read while the game's advertising plays out in the background. Of course, Gamespot gave Battlefield 3 an 8.5 recently, not a spectacular score by any means, even while that game was all over the site. But I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had the reviewer wanted to give it a 6.0.
Above: Kane & Lynch, who caused more mayhem in real life than they wrecked on the Xbox 360.
All this discussion of Gamespot inevitably brings us to arguably its biggest competitor, the multimedia juggernaut over at IGN. I always read up on IGN, and think they do a better job of being a one-stop shop, the Walmart of gaming sites. If I want movie news and rumors, the first review of a particular game, or a fun diversion or two, I always stop by IGN.
By and large, however, I don't put much stock in IGN's game reviews, mainly because they are so unrelentingly positive. Bizarrely, the site actually grades loweron average than other game publications, at least according to Metacritic. But I get a sneaking feeling that their lower average score comes mainly from dropping 5.5's and below on terrible games (for example, Lair), while rewarding most well-hyped titles with such high scores that one begins to think 9.0 is the bottomof the realistic scale.
IGN's reviews are problematic, because it's impossible to differentiate true masterpieces from just very competently crafted games. For instance, Jade Empire -- a decent action RPG but by no means a lifetime masterpiece like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic -- received a staggering 9.9 from IGN. Compared to the rest of Bioware's work -- KOTOR, Mass Effect 2, Baldur's Gate 2, etc. -- this seems like a gift. There are less egregious examples, but I still find IGN scores to be largely meaningless, and it's possible to scroll down their list of reviews and keep seeing ones that seem bizarre today: Jak 3 at 9.6, or Resistance 2 at 9.5, ad infinitum.
Above: Think she looks surprised? She probably just read the review of her game over at IGN.
Giant Bomb began as the brain-child of Jeff Gerstmann after his Gamespot days, and I find that their reviews are -- if possible -- even better than Gamespot's in terms of quality of writing and just being on-point about whether or not a game is worth buying. This makes sense, since they're effectively a guerrilla offshoot of this site (the way that Respawn Entertainment is a guerrilla offshoot of Infinity Ward, I suppose).
But the site, although now no longer young, has remained puzzlingly small-scale. Yes, I understand that they want to avoid the same problems of becoming too large and commercialized. But come on -- would it kill you to hire some more staff and review a sports game or two? Madden did get a review this year, but I'm still waiting on FIFA 12, MLB 11: The Show, and NCAA Football 12. Considering this is a hugely important and lucrative genre (just take a look at FIFA's sale numbers year in and year out), you'd figure that the site would prioritize these games a little more.
Above: Interested in what Gerstmann and co. thought about the gameplay improvements (or lack thereof) in NCAA Football 12? Well, you'd better email them, because you're not going to find out on Giant Bomb.
Those are the three sites that I spend the most time reading. What do you guys think?
My Recent Reviews
Jun 13, 2013 2:24 am GMTmasterpinky2000 added God of War: Ascension to their wish list
Jun 13, 2013 2:24 am GMTmasterpinky2000 added The Last of Us to their wish list
Jun 13, 2013 2:24 am GMTmasterpinky2000 added BioShock Infinite to their wish list
Jun 12, 2013 2:50 pm GMTmasterpinky2000 posted a new blog entry entitled The Xbox One v. Playstation 4 -- History Repeats Itself