Thursday, October 27, 2011

Books as games (no, not like that)

Over at Kotaku Kirk Hamilton has written an article about a hypothetical world where books are distributed more like video games. The main conceit is that it’s easy to get a book; you just buy it at the store or through your device. In contrast the article states that buying a game is a months long affair akin to pregnancy as you read previews, about development and delays. It’s in some ways a fair cop, and in others it isn’t.

John Hodgman just released a trailer for his upcoming book. It’s not uncommon these days for books to have trailers, little teases to get readers excited about a new release from a favorite author or an up and coming writer. To be fair Hodgman’s trailer was released a little less than a week before the book launch, but that isn’t always the case as book trailers are often released months ahead of time. Trailers aren’t previews though, they’re more like the announcement videos used for games.

More like previews are advance copies. Earlier this year I was asked to review Ready Player One. In order to review the book in time for it’s August release date I was sent an advance copy that was content complete but lacked final editing; it was expected to have typos that wouldn’t be present in the release copy. I got lucky with this book; it was written by a relatively new author and the publicist was targeting a wider audience. I wasn’t so lucky with Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE, a book I was super excited about.

I knew people had advance copies of REAMDE; people at Boing Boing had advance copies, a friend of my brother had an advance copy. I was jealous and did the only thing I could; I pre-ordered it from Amazon for my Kindle. The choice of where to pre-order it from was more about platform than any sort of bonus, but the bonus is price. While games aren’t generally priced less than MSRP (with some retailer exceptions) at launch, books almost always are. The choice of where to buy is a combination platform and price.

The story doesn’t stop when REAMDE was wirelessly delivered. About ten days after I received the book and started reading I got an email from Amazon titled “Kindle Title Reamde: A Novel (ASIN:B004​XVN0WW) has an available update”. There was an update to my book. It turns out that there were some formatting errors and small bits of content were missing. Truthfully not enough to throw a fit about (although some did) but enough to warrant a patch. So hey, post-release patches exist even for books.

Books also get content updates. When authors become more popular and have more sway with their editors they sometimes release author’s preferred editions of their books. Sometimes titles get split into multiple volumes when released in paperback. Books often see new light in anniversary editions or updated reprints.

My point is that there are parallels between the book publishing industry and the games industry. Both industries want to sell something to you and then sell it to you again if they can. The same goes for any entertainment industry. The movie industry will try and move unrated director’s cuts and music studios will tout import only exclusive tracks. Book publishers and authors might not treat their content in exactly the same way as game publishers but when you look at the two industries they aren’t all that different.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Handheld Game

There has been a lot of talk about a shakeup in the handheld game. I’m not talking about the NGP or even the 3DS that released earlier this week. I’m talking about the iPhone and other iOS devices.

To anyone who has browsed the App Store it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Apple’s line of devices is contention. There are literally thousands of games available, and at prices that make owners of Nintendo and Sony handhelds jealous; when 3DS games retail for about forty dollars, some of the most popular iOS games cost ninety-nine cents. On the surface it’s a comparison that seems like a no-brainer, iOS has more game at cheaper prices than the DS or PSP, let alone the 3DS and unreleased NGP, but when you look at it closely it becomes apparent that you are comparing apples to satsumas (pun intended).

The iOS line of devices offers a different kind of gameplay experience than a traditional handheld. The iPhone and its ilk tend to be most successful with pickup and play games like Angry Birds and Game Dev Story. These are games that can be played for short periods of time and quickly ended in order to take a phone call or place your order at the counter. The DS, on the other hand, tends to succeed with more sustained gameplay experiences like Pokemon or Zelda. This isn’t to say that you can’t place your DS into suspend mode, or quickly save your game when you need to do something else. Obviously the DS still offers games like Tetris and deeper gameplay experiences like Sword & Sworcery aren’t available on iOS devices, rather the target experience group for each device is different That is to say that each device has its own niche to fill.

This difference in target gameplay experience is something that needs to be taken into consideration when looking at the pricing gap between the DS and iOS devices. Angry Birds may only cost ninety-nine cents but it also offers significantly less variety, if not actual gameplay, than New Super Mario Bros.

There is a question of how long the ninety-nine cent pricing model can hold out. Rising development costs and reduced returns from an increasingly crowded marketplace are bound to drive prices up or force developers to try other methods (Angry Birds HD for iPad just inserted ads into the paid version for example). At the same time prices for the 3DS are bound to normalize as well. As developers familiarize themselves with the new development environment games will become more sophisticated and suited to the current price point while other games should fall to budget prices. In the future the pricing gap between DS and iOS software will shrink, but the difference will still be there.

Ultimately that is the point. It’s the difference between a multipurpose device and a dedicated gaming system; each device has its own target audience. Obviously there’s some overlap, but there is plenty of symmetric difference between the two. As long as all players continue to provide quality gameplay experiences, regardless of depth, the market is big enough to sustain multiple handheld devices.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Ten years ago today I woke up early in the morning and rode a bus downtown before taking a light rail train to, what was at the time the closest Best Buy. I walked out with a white box emblazoned with an orange swirl.

Yes, if you bought one then you already know that today is the tenth anniversary of Sega’s US launch of their greatest achievement and biggest failure. The Dreamcast was the little machine that could do everything except compete against the PlayStation 2 launch hype.

Bundled with a 56k modem for online gaming the Dreamcast was ahead of it’s time. The Dreamcast was also the first console to support progressive scan (albeit through an optional adapter). In addition it supported mouse, keyboard and microphone peripherals.

In a way the Dreamcast was too much of a good thing. Sega’s much touted GD-ROM anti-piracy method was cracked within a year of the US launch. Rampant piracy combined with an already low price point resulted in a product line that was impossible to sustain. With the PlayStation 2 already on shelves and the Xbox and GameCube on the horizon Sega threw in the towel and walked out on the hardware business.

It’s a shame that the Dreamcast had such a short lifespan, but we should be happy it existed. Without the Dreamcast Microsoft may never have entered the console market. Microsoft would then never have developed Xbox Live and online gaming on consoles would be very different and probably not as good.

So dust off that copy of Shenmue and rejoice. Today is Dreamcast Day!

Friday, February 13, 2009

When to review

Recently several news outlets have delayed reviews of Killzone 2 because they were given review code and not final code and because the multiplayer features are difficult to test. Reportedly the code submitted to outlets for review was older and had bugs which were removed from the retail version. This raises some interesting issues.

If a publisher submits pre-release code for review then they must have a certain amount of faith in the product. Still it’s somewhat unreasonable to review admittedly un-finalized code as a finished product. It’s also unreasonable to presume that all of the admitted bugs have actually been fixed. The question here is one of editorial policy: Do you take the publisher/developer’s word at face value? Do you preface your review with a note about pre-release code and review the code as is? Do you just wait and review the retail version?

There are legitimate arguments to be made for every option. The ultimate issue is that whatever policy a publication decides to use, they have to use it across the board. If you wait for a retail copy of Killzone 2 then you have to wait for a retail copy of Halo: ODST or any other game. At the same time if you notify your readers of pre-release code in one review, you must do it in all reviews.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gravity Bone


Gravity Bone is a stylish independent game. It's hard to say a whole lot more about it because in the time it takes me to write it, nay the time it take you to read it, you could have played it.

There's the problem. The game is too short. It's like reading the epilogue to a novel and nothing else, at once engrossing and disappointing. Gravity Bone grips you and then throws you off a cliff without so much as a hello.

The upsetting thing is that while what little there is of Gravity Bone is very good, it's so short it's almost bad. The way the game is designed (there are at least four item slots, but only three are used) makes it feel like an aborted attempt at worst and a demo at best. The whole middle of the game is just missing.

The thing is I still love it.

Gravity Bone via Offworld
screen shot blatantly stolen from Offworld

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bit. Trip: Beat

Over on Offworld Brandon Boyer has posted a video of Beat, one of the six games in Gaijin Games' WiiWare offering Bit. Trip. The thing looks to be made of pure concentrated awesome:

It's like something I'd expect to see on Live Arcade or PSN; stylish and minimal yet impossibly shiny. Nintendo needs to let people know that games like this and other WiiWare titles exist. I'm willing to bet that half of the Wii userbase doesn't even know that it can connect to the net.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Asshole Mario

There's a legend to this one. I haven't bothered to look it up, but the story goes that there's this Super Mario World champion in Japan who's friend challenged him to complete his hacked levels. These are fiendishly hard levels that require just as much luck as skill. A more reasonable name is Kaizo Mario but I find the YouTube poster's choice to be more accurate in describing the pain:

That's just the first level. There are close to a dozen more of these. And if that's not enough there's a sequel that begins with this masterwork:

What I love about this one is how it totally subverts the Mario conventions. Hidden blocks are a punishment instead of a reward and the mechanics of stage completion are used against the player. It's all at once an example of what to do and what not to do in the area of game design.