July 2007

One announcement that may have come as a shock to many within the industry this past week was that Activision snatched the “biggest third-party on the block” crown from EA for the first half of 2007, bolstered by an impressive $387 million in earnings, over $20 million more than their Redwood City rivals for the same period. Of course, to be fair to EA, the sports franchises that make up the bread and butter of the bottom-line don’t start to roll out until August, so any claims of a new world order are probably a bit premature.

Still, the announcement was somewhat refreshing for the scores of us who like to watch the big corporations duke it out like some sort of capitalistic soap opera. Gamers have long bemoaned EA’s rigid focus on riding the same old intellectual properties into the ground, releasing yearly updates to their major franchises and charging full retail price for what often amounts to roster reshuffling. Sports games and yearly updates definitely have their place at the table – Madden alone has probably expanded the gaming market more than a lot of Italian plumbers I could mention. But their rigid focus on this tired release philosophy has made them few friends within the gaming community.

In light of EA exec John Riccitiello’s comments that the company has under-supported Nintendo’s Wii, is it possible that EA might take a few furtive steps in the direction gamers have been pointing for years – using their position as an industry leader to drive the development of innovative and experimental titles? Before I started praising my new Activision overlords, I thought it might be a helpful exercise to compare the two companies’ strategies for the remainder of this year to find out whether EA’s really operating from such a prone position as the community seems to believe it is.

Activision’s 2007 Upcoming Release Lineup:

Bee Movie Game (PC, Wii, DS, 360)
Soldier of Fortune: Pay Back (PC, 360, PS3)
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PC, 360, PS3)
Spider-Man 3 (PSP)
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Wii, 360, PS2, PS3)
Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground (DS, Wii, 360, PS2, PS3)
Spider-Man Friend or Foe (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PSP)
Animal Genius (DS)
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (PC, 360, PS3)

Of course, we also have to keep in mind that Activision just recently released Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the 80s and a Transformers game for nearly all platforms, both of which you can expect to sell extremely strongly. But if you look at what the company is offering for the rest of the year, it becomes evident that nearly all of their titles in development are going to be big hitters in terms of sales.

If the success of past iterations is any indication (and if people are still digging the novelty of the idea), Guitar Hero III will sell like hotcakes, even if Neversoft’s re-imagining of the franchise doesn’t end up being quite what fans of the series are used to. Call of Duty 4 made a huge impression at E3, and given how sales of Call of Duty 2 are still plugging along, it’s not too much to expect that the fourth game in the franchise will continue to exceed sales expectations.

On the flip side, while the Tony Hawk franchise has been a huge money-maker for Activision over the past decade, I don’t think it’s got nearly the momentum that it once had. I’d expect it to probably crack the Top 10 in NPD sales for at least a week or two, but I wouldn’t be shocked at all if it got flushed out quickly by all the other mega-hits coming out around the same time. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was highly anticipated amongst fans, but the demo left a sour taste in most peoples’ mouths. I don’t think it was really poised to be a big seller outside of the hardcore community anyway, but with the poor showing it received, especially in playable form, it might be hard for them to recover.

EA’s 2007 Upcoming Release Lineup:

NCAA March Madness 08 (PS3, 360)
Burnout Paradise (PS3, 360)
Medal of Honor Heroes 2 (Wii, PSP)
Army of Two (360, PS3)
Crysis (PC)
Left 4 Dead (360)
The Simpsons Game (Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
SimCity Societies (PC)
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (360, PS2)
Medal of Honor: Airborne (PC, 360, PS3)
Need for Speed Pro Street (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS3, PSP)
FIFA Soccer 08 (PC, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
EA Playground (Wii, DS)
Half-life 2: The Orange Box (PC, 360, PS3)
Rail Simulator (PC)
NBA Live 08 (PC, Wii, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
EA Replay (PSP)
SKATE (360, PS3)
MySims (Wii, DS)
NHL 08 (360, PS3)
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
Madden NFL 08 (PC, Wii, DS, 360, PS2, PS3, PSP)
Boogie (Wii)
Rock Band (360, PS3)
Hellgate: London (PC)

You don’t need me to tell you how big that list is. Even if you were to take away all the sports games from that list, you’d still find a healthy and hearty mix of new IPs (Army of Two, Hellgate: London, and Crysis seem like slam dunks), promising sequels (Mercenaries and Medal of Honor look pretty good), and direct snipes at the competition’s market share (how else do you explain SKATE and Rock Band?). Even if you don’t like the company for it’s business practices, it’s hard to imagine a Christmas list later this year that doesn’t include at least one title published by EA.

The one flaw I see in their strategy is the flaw that CEO Riccitiello highlighted in his meeting with investors – while EA is the number one publisher for the Wii at the moment, they’re still under serving that market and losing a lot of potential revenue. If there’s anybody whose good at squeezing money from the casual market, it’s EA, and the Wii fits that bill more than any console in recent memory. Of course, they’re in no worse a position than Activision in this respect, but it’s still a glaring oversight on their part.

So what can we conclude from this? Pretty much what we suspected all along. EA is anything but weak at the moment. The multi-headed hydra of a publisher is poised to pounce on consumers this fall, and you can expect them to do it with some authority. Indeed, with Madden‘s release date right around the corner, Activision’s edge in sales will erode quickly, despite their best efforts, and the world will soon return to a state of normalcy.

In the end, so what if EA is still the Mr. Burns of the game industry? As long as they keep delivering the games, we’ll keep playing them.

In a recent interview with Gamasutra, once and former Xbox 360 big-wig Peter Moore identified the lack of mainstream appeal as the number one thing that Microsoft needs to improve with its game division. “As much as we love our hardcore guys — they’re going to love Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV and all of the incredible games that we’ve got — at the same time, we’ve got to get fun back in the living room on our platform,” he said. “We need to accelerate that reach. That’s the only thing we’re looking at, in terms of what our competitors are doing. I think Nintendo is doing a phenomenal job in providing that fun, unexpected experience, to their credit.”

It’s a mantra that seems all the rage these days, as Nintendo is accelerating towards a position of market dominance, despite continued hardware shortages. And it’s not without a solid foundation in truth and observable fact. In a business like the games industry, where companies have traditionally had to battle for a share of the limited pool of hardcore game sales, the simplest solution to the problem over the past several generations has been to simply expand the market. And expand it has.

But for all this talk about non-gamers, new markets, and unfamiliar demographics, it seems like one group that is continuously left out of the discussion are hardcore gamers. Companies like Nintendo seem to be taking for granted the fact that the people who have, for the last two decades, put them in the position they are today will continue to stay with them forever. And while their continued voracity for titles like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy is unquestionable, Nintendo has shown little indication that they’re doing anything to expand their IPs aimed at gamers.

While offerings like Wii Fit and Brain Age are ingenious ways to introduce older audiences to the concept of holding a controller, truthfully I think they do little or nothing to actually expand the market for anybody besides Nintendo. It’s a problem that has plagued the company in the past, even before this shift to focusing on the casual market, and it will likely only become more pronounced if Nintendo becomes the industry leader in installed userbase. I can’t help but feel like this is a mistake. During the last generation of consoles, many third-party developers had to limit or halt altogether production of games for the GameCube because users rarely purchased games without Mario’s mustached moniker on them. This trend seems poised to repeat itself on the Wii, perhaps to an even greater degree due to the complexity of integrating the Wii controls into the design process.

The result? The Wii will probably have among the smallest attach rates of any console in recent memory, perhaps ever. Are we really to presume that once Grandma is done exercising on Wii Fit and playing tennis with the grandkids in Wii Sports, she’s going to throw down in some Metroid Prime 3? Casual gamers play casual games. Despite what the PR says, they are not some mythical gateway drugs that are going to make converts out of the elderly. The money is still with the hardcore.

There’s data to support this. A report by the NPD Group found that “heavy gamers,” while making up only 2% of the individuals polled, purchased more than eight times as many games as the average gamer. In the past three months, avid gamers purchased over 13 titles on average, compared with 2 games over the same period for “mass market gamers.” Heavy gamers not only spend more time playing games, but are more likely to play online and take advantage of digital downloads, which open new revenue streams for savvy publishers.

And that doesn’t factor in the fact that hardcore gamers are usually a crucial first step for innovative ideas to make it to the mainstream. Games like Guitar Hero, which over time have come to be highly successful mainstream products, would never have gotten off the ground had the hardcore community not embraced them so enthusiastically at its onset. An $80 game with its own peripheral would have been a hard sell to John Q. Public had it not garnered approval from the gaming community. Now Guitar Hero and its cousin Rock Band are poised to be major sellers in all segments this holiday season, to hardcore and casual alike.

Market segmentation isn’t the end of the world, I know that. The game industry is full of enough creativity, drive, and capital to support games directed at every market. At the same time, I feel like executives are doing themselves a disservice by pushing the casual games pitch as hard as they have, often to the detriment of traditional games. Many long-time fans of Nintendo found their E3 presentation, where Wii Fit took preeminence to Super Mario Galaxy, lacking. And then to hear that Peter Moore say, “We love our hardcore guys but…” It doesn’t feel right.

Another E3 has come and gone, and gamers everywhere have another super-sized helping of news and impressions to digest. But with all the Wii Fit surprises and Halo 3 impressions, there was a little something missing this year. And I’m not talking about the booth babes. There wasn’t a true price drop announced. This isn’t just a crushing blow to cheapskates. Price drops are a natural part of a console’s life cycle, and something that helps convince those on the fence, tempted by the latest big names, to finally take the plunge.

Typically, price drops usually start once the newest entrant in the latest generation has been out a year. E3 2002 brought a cascade of cuts for all three systems. But this year, for whatever reason, the big three decided to sit things out. This could very well be the longest a generation has lasted without any consoles pulling the trigger. What gives? What are the executives thinking? While it’s easy to come up with all kinds of knee-jerk reactions to the non-news, there’s quite a bit of logic behind the decision. The effectiveness of their logic is another question entirely. Let’s take it system by system.


Technically, Sony did announce a price drop – the 60GB model went from $600 to $500. At first, this seemed like a step in the right direction. The high price singlehandedly transformed the PlayStation brand from a raging 900-lb. gorilla to a slightly grumpy chimp. And while $500 is still on the steep side, it was a step in the right direction. Monthly sales of the console have dropped off so much that the move could only help.

Then, Sony announced a new model that removes the backwards compatibility chip, ups the hard drive to 80GB and throws in a copy of Motorstorm. Oh, and bumps the price up to $600. If gamers weren’t too impressed with the $600 model as it was, would the inclusion of an old game and a 33 percent increase in memory really get people excited? This seemed like a strange move, but at least one model got cheaper.

At least, for a day or so. Shortly after the new arrangements were announced, Kaz Hirai, president and CEO of Sony’s gaming segment, said the 60 GB model is no longer being produced. Once current supplies are gone, that’s all she wrote for that model. The $600 model will be the only choice.

What the?! Why the hell would Sony embrace $600? Since that price point has become market poison, shouldn’t the company run away from it as fast as humanly possible?

Strange as it sounds, the plan probably sounded like sweet music to harried Sony execs. According to research house iSupply, launch PS3 consoles sold for a loss of well over $200, much higher than any other launch console. That caused the company as a whole to lose over $500 million in their last quarter – more than erasing profits from its other divisions. So, since hardware costs drop over time, hard drive memory is dirt-cheap and the removal of hardware-based backwards compatibility saves some dough, the 80GB model almost assuredly loses much less money. Plus the new, more expensive Elite 360 model sold pretty well for Microsoft. Good plan, right?

Aside from the tiny detail that customers hate the $600 price. And the Elite added much more value (HDMI and a 500 percent hard drive increase) than the 80GB PS3 does. And since two different PS3 models (including the near-mythical 20GB model) have sold for $500 already, the inevitable drop of the 80GB model to that level will generate almost zero excitement.

Sure, Sony will get some sales from its E3 moves, but likely not nearly enough to regain ground lost to the 360 and Wii. It may even annoy and confuse customers who are used to one game system model with steady price drops on the market at one time. What a king whopper of a bad move.


If Sony’s issue is one of amount, Microsoft’s is one of time. Simply put, we’re closing in on two years without a price drop for the 360. And that’s a record. Everyone blinked at E3 2002. Pretty much every console ever released shaved at least a few bucks off the price tag by the 1.5 year mark, but not the elder statesman of this generation.

So why is the system being so stubborn? See above. The PS3’s pricing, at least for the “permanent” model, puts it $120-$300 above the 360. Sure, the 60GB’s fire sale shaves $100 off that, but that’s only temporary.

That’s only part of the picture. There’s also the legacy of the original Xbox. Think back to when it first came out – Microsoft decided to make a name for its system by giving it the most advanced tech possible for the time, with a reasonable price to boot. It worked, and the system came in a respectable second for its generation. But it came at a price. The company lost literally billions of dollars getting it off the ground. True, Microsoft made tons of money with that little thing called Windows, but officials always said the Xbox’s successor would use the ground laid by the original to make a profit.

The 360’s original pricing was a bit aggressive. Games, accessories, and even the system went for higher than gamers had ever seen before. And, with no effective competition, the 360 can sell, sell, sell and rake in the bucks, especially now that manufacturing costs have dropped.

Or can it? Sales of the 360 haven’t been bad, but they haven’t exactly been stellar, either. So far, it’s only matched what the Xbox did during the same time period, and the original system was still the unproven newbie. Microsoft now has a good reputation, with great games down the pipe. With the PS3 hobbled, the 360 should be cleaning up with the wide-open market. Unfortunately, $400 is a bit too high for a massive segment of the market too, and the cheaper core system is widely seen as crippled. To really grow, Microsoft’s going to have to reach out to more casual players who want to play Halo 3 online but don’t want to shell out $300 to do it.

Will Microsoft make that move? The year’s still young, but things could go either way. Microsoft could well hope to coast through on the strength of its very strong holiday lineup. Or the company could decide to take the financial hit and push Sony even further behind, locking in future profits.


Well, this one’s easy. The Wii isn’t just selling well, it’s still completely sold out nearly everywhere, eight months after release. No other console has come close to pulling that off, and even Nintendo seemed surprised by its runaway success. A few months ago, the company apologized for the limited supplies and agreed to increase Wii production. Still, the more that get pumped out, the more that get snapped up.

If this keeps up, there’s absolutely no reason for the company to cut the price. Sales could slow, but with the system’s continued popularity and big guns like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl coming later this year, that’s not likely to happen.

The last two years of gaming have surprised nearly everyone, so the crystal ball is especially hazy. Predictions on price drops are a complete crapshoot at this point. Still, there’s a very real possibility that picking up a console will stay an expensive move for quite some time.

Due to a manufacturing error with the Persona 3 Art Book, Atlus has had to slightly delay the release of their newest PS2 title, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.

An Atlus representative had this to say:

“Presented with the choice of compromising on the quality of the art book, or shipping the game without said extra, we decided to have the art book redone with a higher quality binding, which will cause a very short delay in the ship date of the title. While all other materials and packaging related to the game are complete, we were unwilling to sacrifice the art book, and as such will expedite the manufacturing process to the best of our ability in order to release the title as soon as is possible.”

I am sure that Persona 3 fans will appreciate what Atlus is doing, after they get over their initial anger that is.

UPDATE: Atlus just notified us that the new ship date for Persona 3 will be August 14th.

“This is the very soonest that manufacturing of the Persona 3 art book can be completed, and also takes into account the time required for assembly of the final package.”

Rarely will I say this so pay attention: You need to go out and get this game. Now. Finally there is a game worthy of the Playstation 3 console, a game that is destined to become a legend for its style and grace of execution.

Ryu Hayabusa, ninja, wields the Dragon Blade as he searches for the blade’s dark twin, cutting a swath of destruction through enemies bent on keeping him from his prize. Along the way he meets a fiend-hunter named Rachel, who will play her own part in the coming chaos. In a world somewhere between the birth of computer technology and feudal Japan, magic and demons abound as the forces of darkness gather their strength for the final assault. Do you have what it takes to stop them?

Hell yes, and many times over. Right from the opening scene, this game grabs your attention and keeps you locked in. You will build your ninja arsenal of skills and weapons, and hack through countless opponents. More than an upgrade from the Xbox versions, this game is redefined, taking the strengths of the PS3 to its upper limit. Fantastic lighting, texturing and environments coupled with the already fluid fast-paced action have set this title in the upper echelons of PS3 lore.

Ninja Gaiden: Sigma takes the best aspects of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, God of War, and Onimusha, and blends them into an all-that-and-more action/adventure mix. Exploration and minor puzzle-solving are the foundation of the game as you have to figure out the best route to your objective. Some of these roads are easy to ken, but many require the use of your advanced ninja abilities, like wall-running. The environments are so detailed and laden with nooks and crannies that they beg to be explored for secret treasure.

But the real bread and butter of the game is the combat system. The game offers a multitude of combos, including some truly awe-inspiring ones that are difficult to master but incredibly powerful. And with the sheer numbers of baddies around, you will really need to bone up on your fighting techniques. Simple button-mashing will not suffice. You don’t stand a chance if you don’t plan ahead, but you must also be able to make split second decisions using your melee and ranged attacks. All of this lends itself to a required higher level of gaming ability that may daunt casual players, but rewards those willing to dedicate the time.

In addition to your standard ninja swords and throwing stars, you gain many more melee and ranged weapons as the game progresses, adding variety to keep the game interesting. On top of all of that, you can use ninpo magic to heighten your fighting abilities and completely wipe out hordes of enemies. The Sixaxis controller plays a part, allowing you to shake the controller to enhance the magic. Doesn’t sound impressive, but it pumps up the excitement factor considerably. Your jaw will drop the first time you pull out all the stops and decimate everything in your path.

Beyond the almost cinematic quality of the fighting system, the graphics are just amazing, pushing the Playstation 3 to a beautiful movie-like experience. Cut-scenes and in-game resolution are so close in quality and design that the transitions are barely perceptible. The world is so meticulous in its feel such that each area takes on a life of its own; you can almost feel the wind in the trees and smell the dirt in the streets. The depth to which the graphics achieve say a lot of the effort Team Ninja put into developing this remake.

I found the high difficulty invigorating, others may find it annoying. This is by far one of the hardest games I have played to date, which to me is a credit to the game and a sign that its content is not meant for too young a crowd. The enemy has no mercy and if there is an opening for an attack you’d better believe they’ll take it. And don’t think you can block your way through a match either– the AI will take advantage of your hesitation and will grapple you for equally damaging attacks. It gets to the point that you might easily be overcome by as few as three low-level baddies if you don’t position yourself correctly. Many times, you will walk into a room where it seems the waves of bad guys will never cease. Some people will throw the controller down and curse, but me, I love it. Yes, yes, I die just like everyone else, but I love the absolute challenge this gives. I much prefer it this way over having the game handed to me on a platter. NGS requires mastery to advance, and I applaud Team Ninja for not watering down the material.

The only complaint I could broach with this game is an imperfect camera: in large rooms I often can’t see enemies shooting at me, and I have trouble focusing attacks while in the center of the group. In that same vein, I found it frustrating to walk through a door into an unseen ambush. An over-the-shoulder camera when moving through doors would have gone a long way. But really, this game shouldn’t be judged by these few small problems, it should be remembered for the unabashed action.

NGS boasts new enemies, expanded environments and some slight modifications to combos and animations compared to its Xbox predecessor Ninja Gaiden: Black. If all of that isn’t enough for you, the game also gives you the ability to play as the femme fatale Rachel. She is strong in her own right, and offers a completely different play-style from Ryu, keeping you on your toes. I found ample difference between the two to make swapping between them a pleasure. On top of that, if you can beat the game (or kill a nearly impossible boss in the beginning) you can unlock Mission Mode, where storyline events are replaced with singular timed objectives. All of these added features are just an extra sugar coating on an otherwise perfect cake. While this might not be enough justification for someone to upgrade from the Xbox version it should give them some things to consider.

This game has a strong shot at being game of the year with its seamless balance between story, action, and exploration. Moreover, anyone who owns a PS3 and doesn’t buy this game needs to just quit pretending they play good video games, buy a Wii, make a Mii and then punch that Mii repeatedly in the face. You deserve to be beaten one way or the other.