Review: AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 (August, 2014, with Video)

NOTE: This review is for a product that originally came out in late 2013 and thus, was done using more mature drivers and firmware that earlier reviews did not have.

UPDATE (18/08/2014): In the review, I talked about the limited USB 3.0 chipset support of this device. Apparently, the latest firmware for the ExtremeCap U3 adds support for VIA and ASMedia chipsets but with limitations depending on your OS and configuration. AVerMedia’s site isn’t clear on this and that support is only mentioned in the change notes for the latest firmware. See the ExtremeCap U3 download page for more information.

Capturing video in general is a bit of a voodoo science. There’s lots that can go wrong and it only takes one thing to wreck a whole session. Since starting my YouTube channel, this has been the biggest of my many trials by fire. Capturing from PC isn’t too bad because it’s just done with software but grabbing footage from consoles needs extra hardware and thus, an extra thing that can go wrong. As YouTube’s popularity among gamers continues to skyrocket, a number of options are now available for easily taking in video from an external source. The AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 is the third of these I tried and despite some quirks and the potential for frustration for some users, it’s still the best option I’ve come across.

Previous to the ExtremeCap U3, I tried the Elgato Game Capture HD (which has since been replaced by a new model) and AVerMedia’s previous USB offering, the Live Gamer Portable. I hated Elgato’s feature-lite and unreliable software (which I should have expected given Elgato’s being a Mac company first and foremost) and its inability to record commentary to a separate audio track, a vital feature if you are concerned about production values. The Live Gamer Portable allows separate commentary recording which is the main reason I switched but it too had lag issues that weren’t nearly as bad but still problematic. The Live Gamer Portable is a USB 2.0 device and thus, doesn’t send data to your PC fast enough for you to be able record a game lag-free. To get around this, it has an HDMI pass-through that allowed you to send real-time video to another display to watch while you recorded. Since I record at my desk where I only bring consoles when needed and don’t have HDMI-capable monitors, this didn’t work out so well. There was between a one and two second delay between what the console was sending out and what the included RECentral software was showing me which made playing off the software’s display near impossible.

The ExtremeCap U3 is AVerMedia’s first USB 3.0 product and furthermore, the only USB 3.0 capture device on the market that’s not targeted at the very expensive, professional sector. Due to the massive speed increases the relatively recent USB 3.0 spec offers, it’s two most boasted features are the ability to monitor game play through the RECentral software in real-time and also, to be able to record or stream 1080p video at 60 frames per second. Other devices (including the Live Gamer Portable) can only record 1080p at half that speed and even then, still dropping frames on occasion. You can stream to at least Twitch at 60fps if you want and YouTube is starting to roll out 60fps capability to select partners but due to bandwidth constraints, few people will likely use them right now. The higher frame rate is not particularly important right now but having a device capable of it is good for future proofing. The real-time monitoring seemed right up my alley and since this device was cheaper than replacing even one of my two monitors, I decided it was time to upgrade. After a bunch of testing, I can say that this device is solid and does what it advertises very well, if it works for you. That’s key because while I had few problems with it, there’s plenty of headache potential for others.

The first point that cannot be stressed enough is that this is a USB 3.0 product. If you don’t have a system with USB 3.0 capability, you are wasting your money with this. If your motherboard doesn’t support it, add-on cards are available cheaply. However, since USB 3.0 is still in its infancy (though the standard has been finalised), the number of chipsets with official support is low. At present, AVerMedia only supports Intel (which is only on motherboards), Renesas and Fresco Logic chipsets. They say others may work but if not, it’s not their problem. If you are an AMD user, you’ll likely need an add-on card. Even with this caveat, I’ve read numerous reports of particularly Renesas users still having problems with certain resolutions not capturing properly. If you run Windows 7, you’ll also need the most current USB 3.0 drivers for your chipset and right now, only Intel makes those freely available. For other chipsets, you’ll have to go to your add-on card’s vendor and those drivers are often out of date. With Windows 8 or 8.1 (which I run), there are official USB 3.0 drivers from Microsoft in the OS which work well. I have an Intel chipset on my MSI Z77A-GD65 motherboard and had no issues. AVerMedia does include a handy utility which will test your USB 3.0 ports against the ExtremeCap U3 and tell you what resolutions are supported. Unfortunately, this utility requires the device to be plugged in and thus, you can’t do the test before you’ve already put your money down. I strongly recommend that if you buy one of these, do so from a place with a no-hassle return policy.

Aside from the higher frame rate, the main benefit of the ExtremeCap U3 is real-time monitoring. Essentially what this means is that you can use their RECentral software as a display, rather than having to have a second display purely dedicated to monitoring your game play. Overall, this feature works quite well. I experienced a handful of frame drops while playing this way but they were far too few to impact game play and they didn’t show in the recorded footage. The bummer about this is that I presume to save on component costs and keep the price reasonable, they took out the HDMI pass-through that’s present in the Live Gamer Portable. Now, I just explained why real-time monitoring eliminates the need for that and while that’s true, it only applies when you’re recording with RECentral.

If you’re live streaming and using the ExtremeCap U3 as a virtual camera in something like XSplit or Open Broadcaster, your display then becomes your fully populated scene in that software. If you have a webcam in the corner and text elements or use a plug-in to monitor your chat, you have to stare at all of that as you play. This might be OK for some but it’s too distracting for me and unfortunately, you cannot use RECentral while feeding the device into another piece of software. RECentral does support live streaming directly from it but you’re very limited on features if you do that and serious live streamers will want their higher-end tools. While all of AVerMedia’s products support both recording and live streaming, some are better tuned to one of the other. You’ll notice the Live Gamer Portable has the word live in its name whereas this is called the ExtremeCap. That’s very key to determining what they’re best suited for and is something AVerMedia does a poor job of communicating clearly. The good news is you can work around this by purchasing a separate HDMI splitter, many of which are dirt cheap. I have this one on order which is cheap, well reviewed and has the added benefit of stripping out HDCP copy protection, making it much easier to hook up things like the PlayStation 3.

Another touted feature of the ExtremeCap U3 is that it has native plug-ins for both Adobe Premiere and Sony Vegas Pro. I’m not sure why anyone would want to capture directly into their editing suite instead of just using RECentral and importing the footage after the fact but I guess there was demand for this. I’m a Vegas Pro guy so that’s the only plug-in I could test but from my experience, don’t even bother. The interface for the plug-in is messy, it only shows the device’s output in a tiny window that can’t be maximised and at least in Vegas Pro 13, the entire application would crash about 40% of the time after recording stopped. Vegas Pro 13 is newer than the plug-in’s latest version so maybe an update will fix that but honestly, this is a pretty useless feature in my opinion.

As for RECentral itself, opinions online seem to be very mixed on it. A not insignificant number of people have reported that it frequently crashes, freezes or otherwise fails to record properly for them. Personally, I’ve found it a joy to use, especially against the Elgato software. It’s been reliable and I’ve never experienced a crash. I do have a powerful, heavily overclocked Core i7 gaming PC and a Core i7 laptop so if you’re running a more modest configuration, perhaps the software’s reliability goes down. Given the number of people with issues though, I would say that AVerMedia probably still needs to put more effort into it. However, one major gripe I have with it that’s existed since I bought the Live Gamer Portable (which was about four versions ago) is that if you are recording your commentary to a separate MP3 file, the commentary will always be about a half second out of sync with your game play audio. Since it’s a separate file, this can be corrected when you’re editing and I’ve got it down to a science. This is incredibly frustrating though and if you just want to capture and upload to YouTube without editing, it’s an even bigger problem. AVerMedia had steadfastly insisted this is a problem with my setup but after testing on multiple computers, I can assure you they are wrong. This is a big and a really frustrating one that they need to correct.

This brings me to their tech support. This is something not often discussed in reviews but an otherwise good product with lousy support can really sour the experience and I think it’s important to know how it stacks up. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of the Elgato in general but their horrendous support sealed that deal for me. It took them forever to respond when I submitted an issue and not once but twice, they responded answering a question that was so different from what I asked, it made me wonder if they actually read what people submit. AVerMedia’s representatives are both friendly and knowledgeable which is a big plus. However, reaching them is a headache. The support form on their web site is long, complicated and is designed for their entire range of products so it often requires you enter information that’s not really relevant. They will respond quickly but if the can’t answer your question on the first go ground, you can’t just reply to the e-mail or sign in to a portal to submit your response. You actually have to go to the page where you submit feedback on the support experience and at the bottom of that form, there’s a space both for general additional comments or to type a response if your issue was not solved. This is a lousy and overcomplicated way to provide support. We use a free ticket system for IT issues where I work and it puts this to shame. AVerMedia’s tool looks like it was written in-house but with so many off-the-shelf solutions that do it better, there’s really no reason they can’t upgrade to something better. Again, not the end of the world but like most of my issues with this product, they’re little things that aren’t a big deal on their own but are frustrating when you need them.

The last thing of note is probably not important to most but it was to me and that’s the unobnoxious appearance of the ExtremeCap U3. The Live Gamer Portable has a very bright and large ring of light on the top of it that’s always lit up when it’s plugged in and pulses red when it’s recording. It can’t be disabled and I find it very distracting. The ExtremeCap U3 is just a plain black box with a much smaller light that does stay on and also pulses red but it understated and not in your face at all. I’ve ranted before about the lack of status lights these days and I like to know what my stuff is doing but this is the way to do it reasonably. I hope they keep this design going forward.

I’ve accentuated a lot of negatives in this review but overall, I actually like the ExtremeCap U3 quite a bit. I was happy with the Live Gamer Portable as well and the only reason I upgraded was because of the real-time monitoring requirement that’s unique to my setup. Given the relatively small price difference between the two, I would say if you have a compliant USB 3.0 capable system, the ExtremeCap U3 is still the better buy because it supports higher resolutions and frame rates. If you don’t need 1080p/60fps recording capability and have a second HDMI display to use with a pass-through, then the Live Gamer Portable is a fine choice too if you can find it for cheaper. I think that while not perfect, the RECentral software is the easiest and most reliable capture software I’ve used so far and AVerMedia’s support is a little cumbersome but good and they support these products with much more frequent software and firmware updates than Elgato ever did. If you’ve got the system to handle its requirements (and to be fair, mine is well above the system requirements), this does what it says on the tin and does it very well. I will say once again however that I highly recommend you buy this from a place with a no-hassle returns policy because even if you have all your ducks in a row, it may still not work for you and the last thing you want is to get stuck with a restock fee or an outright return refusal.

If you’re a YouTuber or live streamer who is looking for a solid way to capture console footage in any flavour you want, this is a good buy. If you happen to keep all your consoles right beside your desktop PC, you might be best served with an internal card like the Live Gamer HD. If however, you capture off a laptop or your consoles live under your TV which isn’t near your desk, this is a solution that’s fitting my needs well. I don’t always hit it but I try to set and maintain a high quality bar with my videos and this enables me to maintain that. It’s not perfect and it’s not a one-size-fits-all device but it does what it says very well if you’ve got the rig for it. I urge you to watch my video companion above which goes into more detail about the points I’ve made here and has a bunch of demonstration footage as well.

Posted in Computers, Live Stream, Reviews, Reviews, Technology, Video Games, YouTube | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beta Review: Destiny Is Full of Promise and Itself

I have long said that Bungie is a studio that takes themselves way too seriously. Their games are full of simple, yet purposefully impenetrable narratives that they profess to be some form of high-art in game storytelling, when in reality, they’re just incredibly simplistic sci-fi narratives (mostly) that are more or less copies of each other. They like to use a lot of single, simple words to name things and hold back on any useful exposition about them because if you’re a real fan, you’ll seek out all the expanded universe novels, comics and ARGs to fill it in for you. I’ve co-opped every Halo game except 4 to completion and based on the game stories alone, I couldn’t begin to tell you what really happens in them. And we haven’t even gotten to the problems of how slow their games are or how bad the audio design is, just to name two things. Going into those would be a multi-part blog series on its own though.

If you don’t believe Bungie’s opinion of themselves, just listen to the sweeping, almost biblical music that accompanies each title’s opening or the super-serious making of videos they put out before release. These are artists man and they’re making art! You can tell this is a company that cut its teeth making Mac products. They make very pretty stuff that in the end, has the depth of a spoon and has been done better elsewhere but if you aren’t on board, there’s a fiendish army of cult-like followers to tell you how wrong you are and how you just don’t get it. Obviously, being someone who is not a fan either, this makes me super pitiable. Or maybe not. Probably not.

I say that up front because while Destiny (at least in its recently concluded beta form) is all of those things, there’s a ton of potential here and I’m actually excited to see more, though I have a lot of skepticism as well.

If you’re hoping this is when Bungie was going to differ in the narrative department, you’re sadly mistaken. If you want another story about humanity being on the losing side of a conflict and a large object in the sky being key to stopping it, all of which have single word names that explain nothing about them, you’ll find that here. To be fair, the beta was purposefully light on story so it’s possible this will be further explained in the final product. Given how Bungie and Activision have supposedly put $500 million into this project though, I think it’s a safe bet to assume that there will be some other accompanying media. The thing is though, I love both sci-fi stories and post-apocalyptic stories and Destiny looks to be a mixture of both. Even if Bungie does with this what they do with Halo, it’s still going to be a lot more entertaining to run around in this world. At least on the current consoles, it’s a pretty world indeed.

In many ways, Destiny feels like Bungie took the concept of Borderlands (running around shooting stuff, doing missions and collecting loot) and turned it into a full-on MMO. The game can be played offline but it’s clear the meat of it involves running around with friends or joining groups of public players to tackle quests as a group. There are several different types of missions, some simple story quests, others exploratory, others which are essentially raids, complete with the long duration and hard as nails difficulty that requires teamwork. I never managed to finish one, even though I spent north of an hour on some attempts. In the beta, there were not many environments available so a lot of these missions took place in the same part of Earth but the maps are large and different missions will take you to different parts of them. Given the incredible detail of the Old Russia map I spent most of my time on, if the shipping game has a larger variety of areas and juggles your missions back and forth between them, that will be something impressive indeed.

This wouldn’t be a Bungie game without competitive multiplayer and that’s present as well. The beta centered mostly around territory control missions and while it was fun, it was nothing new. If you’ve played this mode in another game, that’s what it is here. Bungie is famous for coming up with kooky game modes so I hope they continue that tradition. Where things get pretty slick is that multiplayer is integrated into the game world. You have to go to a specific place for it but you just travel there like another planet and you take your experience level and gear with you. If you make progress there, you get to take that forward into the main game. I love this seamless design and it does make everything feel a lot more cohesive, though I’m not sure how they’re going to handle balance with matchmaking in that situation.

The problem with MMOs is that they require a lot of customisability and content has to keep coming, otherwise people will just blow through them like any other game and move on. Bungie has said they have a ten year(!) plan for Destiny and they’re already pimping the season pass for it (which they of course call an expansion pass because Bungie has to sound more grandiose) but I really wonder how much content and in particular, unique content is coming. A lot of the beta missions were just of the “go here, kill this” variety and especially in the explore mode, the objectives felt as generic and flat as any MMO. To be fair, those types of grind quests are the bread and butter of genre powerhousees like World of Warcraft so maybe that’s what they need. It won’t be enough to keep me around though. I talked before about the repeating missions in environments and that’s also a concern because many of these repeats are gated off behind level requirements. If you take a mission that’s too high a level for you, all the enemies are just more powerful. They can even be invulnerable if you aim too far beyond your means. There’s no story justification given for this, it’s just the way it is. Again, this is a normal thing to have happen in an MMO but Bungie is positioning this to be something more, something revolutionary. If that’s how they plan to get progression and dish out content, it’s anything but, aside from having more backstory perhaps.

Customisation is another big concern of mine. At least in the beta, there are only a handful of weapon types. As you collect loot, you get better versions of those weapons and some of them will have certain elemental enhancements on them. Sound familiar? You get a primary weapon, a secondary and a special. You also have a few armour pieces you can change but again, the number of types is low compared to even a traditional MMO and it once again becomes a game about getting higher numbers. There may be bigger plans for this but as it was demonstrated in the beta, it feels like a shallow, stripped down version of systems that exist in better fleshed out forms in MMOs that came before. It doesn’t really feel like you have the means to make a character that’s uniquely your own and that’s onen of the big draws of MMOs. At it is now, I feel like there’s going to be a lot of samey characters walking around, just with mismatched colours of armour on with nothing to compare except stats. That’s boring.

Technically, Destiny is one of the first third-party games that I think can truly be called “next-gen.” It was supposed to be Watch Dogs but that game can’t hold a candle to this. Visually, the world is simply breathtaking to behold. Everything is finely detailed and you can see a long way into the distance without it being a blurry mess after a few feet. It’s a gorgeous aesthetic that blends sci-fi and the post-apocalypse perfectly. Bungie’s excellence at menu design is also present here, with a thumbstick controlled cursor setup that looks like it should be an nightmare to use but flows with a level of elegance rarely seen. It’s both more enjoyable and more efficient than using traditional menus. I knocked the pretentiousness of Bungie’s musical choices before but one can’t deny that in spite of that, it’s still wonderful music. A lot of games have fairly generic orchestral scores but Destiny’s feels unique and there’s no doubt that when you hear that menu music, you know exactly where it came from. The voice acting is once again flat and oddly mixed like most Bungie games and they’ve now become the latest studio to have a game in the Why Did You Waste Money On A Big Non-Voice Actor? category. Your robot companion is voiced by Peter Dinklage, whose delivery is so deadpan, disinterested and phoned in, I honestly didn’t know it was him until The Internet got upset about it. I don’t know why studios obsess with paying undoubtedly large amounts to bring in big Hollywood talent who have no idea how to do voice acting and who completely waste that money on lousy performances. People take the piss out of Nolan North and Troy Baker but those guys know how to bloody voice act!

Bungie certainly hasn’t come off their high horse with Destiny. Expectations for this game are high and Bungie’s cultivated them that way. But as someone who doesn’t really care for Halo or Bungie at all, Destiny grabbed my interest and I really want to see more so they may have nonetheless struck a chord with me. I love the concept they’re going for and the world looks gorgeous. I can forgive a lot of pretentiousness when there’s a good game underneath it and there’s potential for that here. There needs to be more variety in the missions and environments, a lot more variety in character customisation and they have to figure out a better way to gate off content but they could have all that sorted already. The beta was apparently a very tiny slice of what is a hugely ambitious product and my reservations about Bungie aside, there are only a handful of studios left who could have a shot of pulling something like this off and the creative influence to do it their way.

Bungie could have made a safer game than Destiny and I imagine they’re betting the farm on it. This game is either going to be a massive success or an historic failure, nothing in between. That’s something you hear a lot more in AAA development this is a level above even that. As someone who wants to see AAA games succeed and do more, I hope they pull it off because that’s more important than whether a studio thinks more of itself than maybe it should. You’ve got me interested Bungie, I hope your ten year plan’s a good one.

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Fix Comment Sections Instead of Just Whining About Them

As we all know, there’s been a lot of talk and snark about the lack of respectful discourse in Internet culture the last while. It’s strange to me how so many people have only recently decided that a problem that’s existed as long as the Internet itself is something we should find a solution for but better late than never. Chief among these discussions has been comment sections. This method of user interaction has never really been regarded as pleasant or civilised, yet it exists everywhere and largely untouched from its original formula. Indeed, this is such a prominent problem that it has its own daily reminder to avoid it. Comments are pretty much the worst.

As this problem continues, we see a greater number of people from press sites bemoaning how terrible comments are, how evil so many commenters are, how they are the reason X group of people can’t feel safe and respected etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with those assessments but it occurred to me yesterday that these people whining about comments on the sites they contribute to have a surprising touch of hypocrisy in their statements.

I mentioned in my Internet Reality post that part of the reason hateful and abusive comments are so rampant on social networks is because despite making a mint off their user’s content, the social networks themselves have largely washed their hands and said they aren’t responsible for what propagates on their services. Somehow, I hadn’t considered web sites themselves in this argument and indeed, there are certainly points to be made there.

Yesterday, Polygon posted yet another story about women in games feeling unsafe and not respected. I have no comment on the article itself beyond that ones of that ilk are a regular staple of Polygon’s “opinion” section, in which every article is purposefully designed to provoke strong response from readers. As one would expect on an article about women in games, a bunch of morons, largely from other unregulated cesspools like Reddit, flooded the section with the same abusive garbage we all know about already. Shortly after, an online acquaintance I follow on Twitter retweeted the following 3 things in a row:

The first is from Polygon’s Opinion Editor, the person who ensures the often purposefully vitriolic tone of that section. His history of harshly toned articles and picking fights with other writers and readers are well documented. The second two which were in response to him are what got me on this line of thinking and demonstrate a baffling disconnect content creators have. As Alex said, Kuchera is actually telling people not to read the comments on his own site, for a controversial article he approved the publication of.

Polygon’s comments section is pretty standard fare. It has moderation of sorts (apparently, I rarely read that site, much less comment) but if you want to chime in, you just have to make an account and post away. They encourage the same interaction with their audience most other sites do and they have an entire section and staff devoted to writing frequently hostile and inflammatory articles which don’t kid yourself, are designed to draw strong reactions because as I’ve said forever, controversy drives clicks. I think that’s softball journalism, which Kuchera has frequently touted himself being superior to while still practising it. I single Kuchera and Polygon out here because they’re the most recent example but it’s just one of many involving many writers.

The hypocrisy comes in when the people who do these things whine and complain that comments sections are as comments sections always have been. You provide the vector for people to comment, you provide the carefully crafted bait that you know will provoke them, you profit from the clicks that controversial articles bring and the additional clicks from people refreshing that comments section but when things go exactly as expected, you want sympathy? Give me a break. You know what’s going to happen, the framework under which your site operates provides the means for it to happen, you let it happen by enabling comments, you don’t get a pat on the back and a “There there, it’s not your fault.” Polygon has since disabled comments on the article in question because they got out of control but not before it made the rounds on Twitter and undoubtedly got a lot more free hits as people stopped in to watch the train wreck.

I don’t think the solution to this is to stop writing about tough subjects. There’s little journalism left in gaming but talking about the hard stuff is how we get more of it. Arguments can be made about the best ways to tackle these subjects but they absolutely should be tackled and discussed. However, the current means of fan interaction through comments is clearly a broken model that’s not working and it’s time to stop whining about it and do something about it.

As I said in the past, the Internet Reality is never going to change. Many people are assholes when they’re anonymous (many don’t even care if they aren’t) and you’ll never eliminate that. However, there’s all kinds of ways you can mitigate the damage they cause to online discourse. You can change how comments sections work and you don’t even have to alter the core idea behind them. It’s mostly different moderation ideas. Here’s just a few:

  • Require that every post be manually approved by a moderator before appearing. Not revolutionary but effective. Many newspaper sites do this now. If your site posts a lot of content, disable comments on new articles after a pre-determined and documented amount of time.
  • Require that new accounts be active for a certain amount of time before getting comment privileges. This deals with people who sign up a fake account just to troll.
  • Leave comments on stories disabled until a certain amount of time after posting. This potentially allows a lot of knee-jerk posters to either forget about the story before commenting or at least, force them to think about what they want to say and calm down if it’s a story that upset them.
  • Have more active moderation and potentially have extra moderators you can bring in when you’re posting a story you know will be controversial. Have strict rules and enforce them vigorously. Change your comment culture with brute force until it normalises. Other sites have succeeded at this.

Or perhaps the most bold idea of all to deal with comments: Don’t have them at all. This is what the person I mentioned above suggested and I think there’s a lot of merit to her argument. Several popular YouTube channels disabled comments entirely after that site rebooted its comments infrastructure last year (which arguably made it worse than it already was) and at least TotalBiscuit has said he has seen no reduction in views whatsoever. From what I’ve heard elsewhere, the vast majority of people who read articles on web sites don’t comment so that’s not traffic that’s lost and chances are if you disabled comments, most of the people who use them wouldn’t go away either. If they want to spout their garbage about your article or even just discuss it, they have Reddit or their Twitter feed to do that.

The fact is, comments aren’t as important as people think they are, they just exist because it’s what you do on the web. That’s a lousy reason to have them. People will make excuses like “This comes from the top, I have no control over it.” but if you’re telling me that corporate executives wouldn’t at least question how comment sections negatively affect their brand when you show them a printout of the stuff contained in them, I simply don’t believe you. You’re either doing a lousy job of selling your superiors on the value of heavier comment moderation (or elimination) or your site’s business model is so intrinsically tied to the traffic that comes from comments that allowing them to run unregulated is more critical to your success than curating civilized discussion. If that’s the case, maybe your site isn’t contributing the value you think it is.

I know it’s very hard to make money in online media these days when reliance is on advertising that pays a fraction of a cent per view. Traffic is necessary and I’ve said before that as much as people like to bitch about that, no one’s figured out a better way yet. However, given the levels of toxicity in online discourse these days, one has to balance that with the need to not be a major contributing factor to the problem. Twitter, Facebook and Reddit may not care to do anything about the toxic communities they make possible but their executives aren’t out there whining about what a problem it is either, nor does being smaller than them get you off the hook. You don’t get to profit (however little) from providing a poorly regulated vector for Internet bile and then whine how it burns when you get it on you.

Victory begins at home. You’re not going to change people being assholes on the Internet but you give them the platforms to be that and there are things you can do but minimise the impact they have. That may not always be good for business but sometimes, principals should prevail. If you think you don’t need to change, that’s fine too. If you don’t have the power within your organisation to try to change comments for the better, that’s also OK. But then don’t whine about a problem you are a part of whether you like it or not and especially not when you collect a paycheck based on stoking controversies and driving that which you claim to despise. It’s hypocritical and not particularly journalistic.

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The Growing Challenge of Belief Suspension

Consider the following video game scenarios:

  • In the BioShock series, you frequently heal your character by eating random foodstuffs found on the floor or in garbage cans.
  • Nathan Drake cuts down hundreds of enemies in the Uncharted series, with such a total lack of conscience that he’s clinically a psychopath.
  • In the latest Tomb Raider, Lara Croft frequently undergoes horrific body trauma, yet manages to shake it off within moments. She also murders hundreds of people and stops being upset about it after the first couple.
  • In Watch Dogs, Aiden Pierce can run over a group of civilians (accidentally or intentionally) and despite the total surveillance state Chicago is portrayed as in game, the authorities seem unable to track him down with any accuracy or expediency.
  • The house in Gone Home is ludicrously oversized for the size of the family living there and how the game portrays the economic situation of said family.

What two things do all these scenarios have in common?

Firstly, they’re all completely unrealistic, improbably and in some cases, just plan ludicrous. Secondly and more importantly, they all take place in video games which are not real.

I’ve noticed in a lot of recent game discussions I’ve come across, that many people seem to be having a harder and harder time suspending their disbelief when playing certain titles. They’re almost always titles that take place in a world based in some way off the present world we live in. Most of the time in present day (or the recent past) and with human characters. In these conversations, you’ll often see the term ludonarrative dissonance appear. A term often used by pretentious people to sound pretentious, it basically means that it makes no sense that the character you’re playing is able to accomplish what they do because their actions and consequences (or lack thereof) have no grounding in reality. Whether this is murdering hundreds of enemies with ease, healing by eating out of the trash or getting away with heinous crimes in a police state, the discussion will usually be centered around how that makes no sense and the game is worse off for not portraying things in a manner more believable.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem suspending my disbelief and leaving it firmly suspended. I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years now. To me and I dare say to most others, they’re an opportunity to break from the real world and experience something that’s not constrained by the societal and physical rules that our normal lives are. That’s why I love them, they’re an escapist media and one where you’re in control of it. So it’s always struck me as odd how people will be put off by what is ultimately a fantasy, not being closely tied enough to reality. When I see people criticising BioShock for its trash healing items or Watch Dogs for its lack of lawful consequences or Nathan Drake for his lack of conscience, my response is always “So what? It’s a video game.”

Furthermore, I find it odd how a lot of the discussions I see on this subject only cite certain elements of games as the ones that are hard to believe. Never in a discussion of Nathan Drake’s supposed psychopathy did I ever see people complain how unrealistic his regenerating health is. Yeah, in the real world it would be pretty disturbing to see someone mow down armies of mercenaries with little more than sarcastic quips but the dude can fully heal up from getting shot a dozen times! Those bullets just drop right out of him and the wounds close over all by themelves! He can also reload a partial clip of ammunition in his gun without losing the excess and he’s able to do it within seconds every single time! That’s downright miraculous and something that would never, ever happen in the real world.

Thing is, a video game isn’t the real world and that’s what makes all of this OK. A world in which we had to wrestle with Nathan Drake’s conscience or had to individually heal up every wound (which wouldn’t even happen because after the first couple, your body would just give up) would be horrendously boring, frustrating and not at all fun. Which is tricky when video games are ostensibly supposed to be about fun. There are games out there that attempt to portray real life scenarios with as much exacting real life detail as possible. It’s great that these exist but there’s a reason they only have niche audiences of super hardcore players.

One of the reasons I like Watch Dogs is because it presents an interesting world with its surveillance state of Chicago but it’s also a world you’re encouraged to have fun in. Much of the value of video games is breaking the rules of the real world or just the absence of them. To give it the rules and limitations of the real world would be to suck the fun out for all but a devoted few and that few can’t fund a AAA open world game. When I look at Watch Dogs or to a more extreme degree, the Grand Theft Auto games, I don’t see a world that’s frustrating because it doesn’t closely mimic the one I live in, I see a bunch of possibilities for goofy escapism because it doesn’t closely mimic the one I live in.

People can choose to like or not like a game for whatever reasons they wish of course but I’ve seen this subject come up more often lately and I’m curious why. Maybe it’s a byproduct of big games pushing ever closer to that graphical end point of photo realism. Perhaps it’s that too many games are focusing not so much on conflict and combat but encouraging you to dispatch enemies in increasingly brutal and unrealistic ways. Or it might be that as game storytelling evolves in complexity and character depth, it’s simply becoming harder to suspend our disbelief and see these as purely virtual elements. When you’re controlling a realistic looking 3D character with a well exposited back story and a voice instead of a mute sprite, maybe it becomes more difficult to not relate to them in a real world context.

If the sentiments I’ve been seeing continue to grow, this is something future game designers are going to have to wrestle with. How do you make a game that can appear to be something viable in the real world while still making it a video game whose principal function is to entertain? I certainly don’t have the answer to that. Personally, I’m happy to keep my real world and my video games separate. When the lines start to blur, a lot of the entertainment value for myself and I suspect many others starts to diminish rapidly. If there is a growing market of people who want stuff more closely tied to reality, maybe there’s an interesting venn diagram there where the two make something truly awesome.

I’m all for pushing the envelope and making stories, worlds and characters more easily related to but you know what? If my choices in BioShock are instantly eat stuff out of the trash to heal or having to find, prepare and eat food, then waiting for it to actually start healing me, I’m happy with the former. Remember how Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had you manually heal your own wounds? Yeah, that sucked. It’s not my idea of fun. If you’re spending more of your time with Uncharted psychoanalyzing Nathan Drake than experiencing the world, that’s fine and maybe that’s what fun is for you but in that case, you may also be playing the wrong kind of games.

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Review: Video Games: The Movie Is A Gushing Love Letter with Little Substance

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for this. Read on though and you’ll see how that’s clearly not affected my view of it.

When it comes to video game documentaries, I’ll watch pretty much whatever I can get my hands on. As a medium, it’s had little coverage in this form and as someone who takes as much an interest in where games come from as the games itself, I lap this stuff up. When Video Games: The Movie first announced its Kickstarter, I backed it at the level to get the movie at release without hesitation. I knew little about its creator but I just wanted to see more of this stuff get made and when it came out today, I dove right in. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately just a shallow, gushy love letter that preaches to the choir and little else.

It turns out Video Games: The Movie’s writer/producer/director Jeremy Snead, actually does video work for the industry itself, often in the form of trailers. This is evident when you watch the movie. It’s full of quick cuts, licensed musical backings and flashy motion graphics, where I surprisingly noticed more than a few glaring typos (geez guys, it’s spelled veteran, not veteren.) It also has no sense of pace, always feeling like it’s in a rush, spazzing back and forth between time periods and topics with no consistent flow. You can look away for a minute and come back to see it talking about something not at all related to what it was before. Despite clocking in at over 90 minutes, it still manages to skip all kinds of important industry history, including several of prominent game consoles and it all but entirely ignores the massive role personal computers played in the rise of the medium. It hits a lot of the key historical beats that most people already know about and doesn’t even acknowledge many others. As someone who already knows a lot of this history, I found myself dumbstruck by how much was omitted.

A number of industry veterans and fans of the medium are interviewed throughout, everyone from Nolan Bushnell to Wil Wheaton to Hideo Kojima to Chris Hardwick. There’s a couple of important historical figures but not as many as I’d like to have seen in a movie ostensibly about the industry’s past. I also have to say that including three people who were also listed as being Executive Producers (a reward for backing the project at the $10,000 level) felt a little weird to me. Especially David Perry and Cliff Blezsinski, both of whom got segments dedicated to pimping technologies they both have investments in (cloud gaming and VR respectively.) All of this is backed by narration from Sean Astin, whose delivery is so wooden that I honestly wouldn’t have known he was in it if his name wasn’t in the credits.

My big issues are with how the movie presents information and what it leaves out. As I said above, many important gaming systems and basically computers as a whole are excluded in all but a pass on a motion graphic timeline. In addition, several key elements of gaming’s history are either omitted or distilled down to the point of misrepresentation. A segment is devoted to the famous 1980s crash that all but killed the console business until Nintendo came around and revived it. Notice there that I said the console business. Computer gaming actually thrived after the crash but nowhere is this mentioned. The movie also blames Atari’s infamous E.T. game as what caused the crash, when in fact is was just the most prominent story of a crash that was already well in progress by that point. Later, a segment is jarringly shoved into the middle of the movie to deal with the subject of gaming violence and it’s demonising by politicians. Rather than show how this came about and how it’s since largely gone away, it just spends several minutes hammering on about how violent kids are a parental problem, not a gaming problem and how wrong everyone is to blame them. Guess what guys? We won that fight already! The US Supreme Court was with us and aside from an occasional tabloid story, violence in video games is no longer a mainstream cultural issue. This was a movie made largely in 2014, why are you still acting like we’re on the defensive?

Beyond that, Video Games: The Movie deals with almost no other criticisms of the gaming industry. It’s cultural impacts, social impacts, the problems of representation, the business challenges that have been building for more than a decade and are coming to a head right now, there’s no mention of any of these. Most of the information is presented in the form of either old trailers or commercials, many of which are clearly low quality pulls from YouTube and occasionally with an industry personality talking over them. Those are fine in moderation but it’s not really what I want to see the majority of a documentary consist of. Furthermore, this movie which is supposed to be about the medium, spends almost all its time focused on the AAA side of the business. Indie games get a short segment to tout the same usual lines about creative and corporate freedom, mobile games are left out entirely except for Angry Birds, the cultural revolution that is Minecraft only gets some B-roll and aside from a mention of Steam by Wil Wheaton, the resurgence of PC gaming is ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I love AAA games and am glad to see something these days that doesn’t just speak cynically of them but it also feels like Snead is kind of kissing up to the industry that provides his bread and butter when he’s not making documentaries about it.

Make no mistake, this is a love letter to the medium and the industry of video games but my question is, who was this actually made for? People who are existing fans of video games probably know a lot of what the movie talks about already. Preaching to the choir is fine and all but did you need a crowd funded documentary to tell people a stripped down version of what they already know and love? If you’re someone who doesn’t care about video games, I don’t see how this is going to change your mind about anything. If you’re hoping to get a history lesson, you’re better to spend a couple of hours on Wikipedia where you’ll actually get a complete story.

Video Games: The Movie is a documentary that uses a flashy presentation to cover up the fact that there’s little underneath. What information hasn’t been excluded has been boiled down and distilled to something that doesn’t do justice to the history it’s trying to convey. This is a movie made for people who are just going to nod their heads in agreement with it because they were already sold on its ideas before they even sat down. Documentaries are supposed to be more than that, they’re supposed to provoke independent thought and discussion and enlighten from those. All this does is just go “VIDEO GAMES AMIRITE GUYS?!” for over an hour and a half and honestly, I think we can do better than this.

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Review: Murdered: Soul Suspect Is A Lot of Soul In A Weird Vessel

NOTE: This review contains no spoilers.

The rise of achievements and trophies in games has given a pretty reliable way to tell when a game is either shovelware or was rushed out. Their design is almost always done at the end of development. If a project was rushed, they’ll often be for easily programmed triggers like completing story levels or grabbing all the collectibles. There will be little creativity or challenge involved, sometimes comically so. These are required for your game to ship on consoles though so they have to be done and you can see when they’ve been hastily created out of obligation. Such is very much the case with Murdered: Soul Suspect. This was a bummer for me as I was looking forward to this game but as I progressed through it, what I saw was something that was clearly rushed but also obviously had incredible ambitions and still ended up being something special to me somehow.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is an extremely flawed product to put it mildly but it’s also just super weird in many ways. Airtight Games is listed as the developer in most places. They had been around for a decade before going out of business right after this shipped, after stripping down to a skeleton crew to get it finished. They also had never released what I would consider a good game. They made Dark Void, another good idea with bad execution, Quantum Conundrum, a first-person puzzle game that tried way too hard to have personality and just came out boring, a couple of mobile titles and an perplexing Ouya exclusive that no one cared about. Surviving for a decade in spite of this track record is impressive on its own. However, when you check the credits of Murdered: Soul Suspect, you’ll see it listed as co-developed by Airtight and Square Enix Japan, with most of the project’s creative leads being Japanese. Co-development with console games is very rare now, co-development between a Japanese in-house team and an American external team basically never happens. There’s some narrative under the surface of this I hope we get to see some day. Was Square Enix unable to finish this themselves and just outsourced the rest? Was this Airtight’s idea that Square Enix decided to finish in-house as that studio slowly crumbled? Given Airtight’s past quality, was it their fault this clearly shipped before it was ready or like most new IP these days, did Square Enix just decide not to back it properly? There’s something fascinating there for industry observers like myself to chew on, I’m sure of it.

From the very beginning of Murdered: Soul Suspect, you can see signs of a rushed project. The game’s title screen is just a short, looping logo animation with no sound. The load times are abysmal for a dated looking Unreal Engine 3 game on a new console. The many CG cutscenes just look like heavily compressed captures of in-engine footage. Some of the flavour text from collectibles is very detailed, other stuff is only a sentence or two (more on that later.) I ran into numerous scripted events that wouldn’t trigger, requiring a checkpoint restart at best and a console reboot at worst.

And we haven’t even gotten to the game play yet.

At its heart, Murdered: Soul Suspect is trying to be an adventure game. Your character is a detective in Salem, Massachusetts who is a former hardened criminal who has reformed into a streetwise homicide detective. There is more backstory you can fill out in text from collectibles but to say that your character’s past isn’t well fleshed out is an understatement.

You start off being shoved out a window by a serial killer and dying as a result. You become a ghost, something you seem to adapt to and become pretty cool with jarringly fast and aim to solve your own murder while also catching the serial killer in the process. Since you’re a ghost, you can walk through walls within your current environment, to go into a new building requires an open door or window for reasons largely unexplained. You can also possess people to hear their thoughts, though they never have more than two which are always useless filler and many people in Salem are just mental carbon copies of each other. At certain story points, you can also influence a person’s thoughts and see key objects through their eyes. You also possess a cat once in a while for some dull platforming sections. Ghosts can possess cats and yes, that’s just something everyone knows and accepts from the get go in ghost world. You also get teleport capability and the means to remove certain, specific ghost walls that block your path sometimes because why not? Along the way, you cross paths with a young girl whose mother has gone missing. This girl is a Medium, a person with a special ability that lets her see, hear and interact with ghosts. What’s the reason for this? Look, stop asking questions and just roll with it OK? Through mutual need, you end up working together to solve this case, though your character ends up doing most of the heavy lifting.

The core game play of Murdered: Soul Suspect involves investigations and a ton of collecting stuff. You will enter an environment and proceed through some rudimentary challenges to reach your investigation point. If you’re by yourself, you’ll sometimes have to take out demons, which appear at set times in the story. These are forced stealth sections where you have to sneak up behind a demon and perform a one-step QTE to take them out. If they see you or you fail said QTE, you have to run away and hide until they get bored. It’s frustrating and has no real narrative justification. If you’re with your sidekick, you’ll often have to distract guards and cameras to guide her through the environment to where you need to go. These sequences are trivially easy and are clearly there to just pad out the game’s already short length.

Once you reach an investigation, you search for clues in the environment and choose from them to determine either the killer’s motives and/or what they’re going to do next to stay on their trail. The UI tells you how many clues there are to collect (plus you don’t always need them all), when you leave the zone where they are (which is always a small area) and if you try to solve the case early, it will even tell you if you’re missing the right clue. On top of this, you get three chances to screw up choosing the right clues, a mechanic that exists for no other reason than because someone said “There has to be a fail state here!” I’d love to tell you what happens when you use all your chances but the choices are usually so easy, I never actually failed more than twice. Some of the puzzles go so far as only having three options to choose from and since you still get three chances, you literally can’t fail. In some environments, there are also optional side investigations to provide peace to some troubled spirits but these work the same way and are even easier. All you really get for them is a small, unrelated side story and a trophy/achievement for each one. This game has almost Gone Home levels of formal elements at times and if you know what I thought of Gone Home, that’s not a compliment.

The other main element is collecting and boy howdy, there is a boatload of that to do. This is something that feels to me like it was always intended to be in the game but probably not to this degree. Throughout the environments, there are papers to pick up, plaques to look at and hidden object sets to reveal. All of these are clearly marked and many are in plain sight but a number are cleverly hidden away as well. They reveal back story about your character, other people in the story, the killer you’re pursuing and even the history of Salem. Some of this is interesting and better fleshes out the world and characters but some of it is very sparse, like there wasn’t time to finish writing it. They’re all optional but if you’re an obsessive collector, you’ll likely find the challenge of getting everything much lighter than some other collectible heavy games. Make no mistake though, like the demon stealth sections, this is just a weak padding device. Without this, the game could probably be finished in only a couple of hours. I collected about 85% of what was available and I still saw the credits in less than eight.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is an aggressively linear game but when you get out into the town of Salem itself, you can see it had ambitions of being much more. You’re actually free to wander around the town and I can see that they probably wanted this to be not necessarily a big open world but one where you could choose to go where you wanted and tackle the story in your own order. Indeed, the entrances to all the various environments you will eventually go to are open from the outset but trying to step into any but the one you’ve been directed to go to results in your character just turning around and saying “Not goin’ that way.” The town is sparsely populated with people who either just stand in place the whole game or are stiffly animated and walking the same looping route. You can’t enter any other buildings, there are no cars moving and much of the town is blocked by “ghost buildings” you can’t pass through. In the end, Salem just serves as another level to get collectibles in, a lot more since you’ll visit it several times. It’s more filler as the game shoves you down a pre-determined path. It’s clear this wasn’t the way the design was intended though and I would have loved to see this game stay in the oven long enough to become more free form.

That’s really the key take away of Murdered: Soul Suspect. This is a game that had lofty ambitions. That’s obvious when you play it. You can not only see that in a general sense but in many cases, you can specifically see what they wanted it to be. Yet for whatever reason, whether it was Square Enix being squeamish about a new IP, Airtight’s mediocre development history or something else, the project was stripped down to a small shell of what it could have been and shoved out the door to try to lose as little money as possible, rather than just cancelled. There was incredible potential here and the framework was in place, they just squandered it and burned not only this brand but the potential for larger budget, console adventure games in the process.

So I’ve spent many words dumping on this game but I also said it was something special to me. Despite the long list of problems, I really enjoyed my time with Murdered: Soul Suspect and though it’ll probably never happen, I’d love to see someone else take a kick at this can. The characters needed more fleshing out but in the moment, were often well realised. You empathised with their plight and what they were up against, a feeling I don’t often get in games. The voice acting was well done as was most of the core writing. The story is a murder mystery and it excels at that. My girlfriend and I recently watched the phenomenal British mystery series Broadchurch which kept us guessing about who the killer was right up until the end, when we found out we were both wrong. The same thing happened with Murdered: Soul Suspect. I had several ideas who the serial killer was and the conclusion was something I never saw coming, yet was fulfilling as well. It also neatly tied a bow on the tale without just being sequel setup. This is so exceedingly rare to see from big publishers now that it’s refreshing when it does happen. While the developers had to neglect major aspects of the game part of Murdered: Soul Suspect, they still managed to hang onto the story they were trying to tell and managed to make it compelling and worth seeing through, even if the path to get these was tedious and frustrating. That’s an impressive accomplishment unto itself if you ask me.

Had this been a $20 downloadable game or even a $30 retail product, I think it might have been considered better and sold much better. Yet Square Enix chose to make this a full-price retail release, essentially guaranteeing it no audience and extra harsh reviews. In the retail console space, absolute quality and polish are required to ensure your game sells. What did they expect to happen with this? Development troubles aside, their publishing strategy with this game was so mishandled that while it may never have succeeded, it could have failed less than it probably has. It likely wouldn’t have saved Airtight Games but at least it might have done well enough to get a second shot with a fresh team.

If you’re someone who thinks games should be about game play first and stories second (as I usually am), the flaws of Murdered: Soul Suspect will probably be too much to give it your time. Even as someone who was surprised by it, I think paying full price for this is a poor value. However, if you’re someone who does like a different, good story that’s not told in a cliché way and has deep characterisation, it’s something quite special and in rare cases, that’s enough for me to like a game in spite of itself. Heck, how many mystery games in general do we get these days?

The most frustrating types of games to see for me are not the bad ones, it’s the ones that clearly could have been great if they’d just been given the chance to be and Murdered: Soul Suspect is most certainly that. It’s a game that was made with heart and well, soul, it just didn’t have everything else it needed and that’s a shame. It’s something different and cool though and in a console space where that’s becoming more and more rare, it’s maybe worth experiencing just for that.

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So That Was E3 2014 (With Video)

I’m going to talk about E3 on a wider scale here but if you want to hear a discussion about individual games, check out the latest RambleCast where, Chris Cessarano, Chris Woodward and I dig deep into the specifics of what we’re excited about.

So, another E3 is in the books, the first since we had the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One! There was a lot of cynicism of the usual flavour going into the show this year from the so-called “enthusiast” press. The usual “Is AAA doomed?”, “Are consoles doomed?” nonsense that always tends to crop up more around this time of year and which seems to at least partially be washed away by E3. The prophecy du jour last year was that E3 was irrelevant because we’d all be playing games on tablets exclusively in a few years. A lot of those people have gone mysteriously quiet on that now that the Xbox One and PS4 are selling better than their highly successful predecessors were at this point in their lives.

This year, there are still questions about E3’s relevance but of a different sort and one I can get on board with more. The question now is that whether or not a big, glitzy, press and trade only show is really necessary when it’s dead simple for even small companies to directly talk to their fans on their schedule now. Last year, Nintendo skipping out on their press conference and doing live streams was seen as yet another sign that they were doomed, despite having enough wealth to run their current losses for something like 40 years. They did the same thing again this year but Jeff Gerstmann pondered that Nintendo may be ahead of the curve, despite being a traditionally slow and conservative company.

Rather than spending millions on a full-blown press conference, they spent a fraction of that to put on these streams, largely pre-recorded to avoid any unfortunate live flubs and made them available so that anyone be they press, fans or industry people, can watch them whenever they want. They conveyed all the information and trailers they wanted to but in a more polished way and for cheap. People seemed to love it too because it continued throughout the whole show and also allowed for much longer demo sessions than a live conference would provide. I guarantee you that Sony, Microsoft and most of the big publishers were watching that and thinking similar things. Why spend so much more to come to a scheduled trade event where you’re jammed in with your competitors when you can control the message yourself to a more captive audience? For as much as I love the glitz and glamour of E3, I could totally get behind more focused events from industry participants themselves. With EA’s huge hot air show and multiple other large companies having huge, empty booths because they have no games to show, I wonder if we’ll see more of that soon. If we do, I dare say E3’s relevance is legitimately questionable then.

Overall, I’d say it was a good show but as is to be expected from certain elements, it was still looked down upon as something to be made fun of, along with the audience who are clearly just lining up in greater numbers to be good little marketing drones. It’s true that E3 is really just a marketing event but you know what? I like video games a lot and during E3, we get to see and hear about a whole lot of video games, including a decent selection of indie games now too. So, why is that suddenly a bad thing? It may be a marketing event but since I’m not an idiot, I know when I’m being marketed to and I don’t drink the Kool-Aid wholesale, I just take the information I’m given, figure out what games interest me and what I want to keep an eye on. I know a CG trailer when I see it, I know what’s legitimate game play and what isn’t and I know what games will have to show me more before they get my money. Any hardcore gamer with half a wit’s knowledge of how this industry works also knows that. You don’t have to like E3 or the AAA industry, but if all you can bring yourself to do during the week is make snarky comments about it and the audience that watches it (though you’re totally not doing that just because you say so), then maybe you should just keep quiet and consider how much you’re really serving your audience. I’m looking at you Idle Thumbs and Jim Sterling. I like E3, I like the kind of products they show there and the way they’re presented. If you think that’s something to be ashamed of, ride your high horse back to your echo chamber because I don’t have time for you.

What I also took away from this year’s show was a big shift in publisher priorities from last year. When I wrote about E3 2013, I talked about how two big things everyone was pushing last year were open world and second screen experiences. It seemed almost every major trailer you saw had the big zoom out reveal in the end where they showed how you were just one of thousands of people having an impact on the game world. This was often followed up by a demonstration of how you were going to be able to use your tablet or smartphone to interact with the game in some small way when you couldn’t be at your console because you must be playing the game every minute of every day! Whether hacking into other people’s games in Watch Dogs or flying the drone in a friend’s game of The Division, you were always going to have something you could to when on the train or the toilet.

This year, there was a whole lot less of both mentioned.

Several of those open world games have come out and some like The Crew and The Division are still coming but across the board, there were a lot more games focused back on being either single player or tight, small group multiplayer. I love me a good open world but I also love a focused single player experience or playing with just a small group of friends. A lot of the publishers seem to be focusing on those again and that’s great. As for the second screen stuff, I don’t want to say I told you so (OK, maybe a little) but so far, it appears I was right when I said that no one gives a crap about that stuff. Microsoft made no mention of SmartGlass, Sony made no mention of tablet integration (they didn’t even mention the excellent PlayStation app) and while Ubisoft acknowledged tablet play in The Division by showing it in the game’s UI, it was never uttered at anyone’s press conference or demonstrated live. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard a word about Watch Dogs’ second screen stuff since that game launched. Hardcore gamers don’t want a second-rate mobile hand-me-down experience, they want the full thing they paid for and casual players aren’t going to be lured into buying a console and $60 game because they flew a laggy drone around on their phone while commuting. It’s a dumb idea and it seems to have landed with a thud which is a great thing because there are far better things to be spending all that development money on.

This has also unfortunately been the Year of Delays. A lot of what people were excited to see at this year’s E3 was originally set to come this year and is now coming at some nebulous point in 2015. For me personally, I have such a backlog to get to that I really don’t mind. I’ll always take a delay to ensure a quality product in the end. But if you’re Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo, there’s definitely going to be worries about whether momentum can be maintained in hardware sales. The Wii U is hurting bad and needs software right now and there’s a lot coming but most of it isn’t this year. Nintendo plays the long game so they’re just doing what they do but it’s still a worry. To their credit, they could have thrown the Wii U under the bus and focused on the successful 3DS but they didn’t and they’re doubling down to make it a success. The PS4 and Xbox One have had spectacular launches, exceeding most people’s expectations but that will only continue so long without a lot of new software and the last thing they need is the press juicing up a new wave of cynicism if these machines aren’t flying off the shelves this holiday. There is still some big stuff coming this year and there are still many great reasons to own a new machine but will it be enough or will people just hold off until 2015? It’s tough to gauge. Sony and Nintendo both made me happy I own their systems and Microsoft has eventually sold me an Xbox One but in all cases, I would have been happy to wait until next year if I didn’t have them yet.

What I really enjoyed about this E3 versus most of the past ones is that all three of the hardware makers took out a lot of the fluff and ancillary crap from their presentations. With the exception of Sony’s big sag in the middle to talk about Powers and a few numbers (plus, monstrously high expectations after last year’s curb stomping of Microsoft), all three of the big shows were just game after game after game. No stats, no charts, no real business crap, just showing tons of stuff that’s coming to get people excited. That’s exactly what those events needed to be this year and they all nailed it.

It was also hugely refreshing to see the executives from these companies learn to act like bloody human beings who actually enjoy what they do and want to serve their customers. Phil Spencer from Microsoft and Shuhei Yoshida from Sony both went on Giant Bomb’s after hours streams, shows where everything is super casual, people are half in the bag and they just shoot the breeze about games. They weren’t super on message and PR handled, they were just rich business guys who love games, talking to gamers about games. Phil Spencer spent a lot of his time praising Nintendo and Shu Yoshida was the same lovable character he always is. Nintendo spent the front part of their presentation making fun of themselves, including having Fils-Aime and Iwata have a big Matix-style brawl, followed by Robot Chicken bits. Also, look at this photo of Shigeru Miyamoto showing Mario Maker to some young kids:

That is just damn amazing. These are multi-millionaire businessmen, they don’t need to do these things to be effective at their jobs but they did because they love gaming and gamers and wanted to show that. The business world at large can take away a valuable lesson from the game industry and E3: Act like a damn human being who loves their job and people will remember that. It costs nothing and brings so much.

Of course, it also wouldn’t be a week in video games without a new controversy and this time, we got it because there are no women characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s co-op mode. This was another charge led by certain individuals and press outlets that are known for this (I’m not naming them, they don’t deserve the credit) and while there are valid points I agree with at the core, the target and escalation of the sentiment is ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, Ubisoft blundered their response to this spectacularly and made themselves look completely tone deaf and stupid. They did themselves no favours and their excuses deserve to be torn apart. There is also a very real problem with a lack of inclusiveness in video games and I’m not at all against there being more female and minority characters to choose from, especially in an industry with the insane budgets of modern AAA. More choices are always a good thing.

However, Ubisoft is also possibly one of the biggest champions of diversity in the AAA industry and of all the many valid things to point at as being examples of poor inclusiveness in video games, people chose the company that has an entire Assassin’s Creed game with a black woman hero protagonist (an instalment which I might add, few people bought, despite it being quite good) and an entire DLC campaign for an Assassin’s Creed game that was about a black man overthrowing slavery. Of all the places to go after for a lack of inclusiveness, to instantly declare war on and to throw language at like “hates women” (which a lot of people did), they picked the one that has done more for this very noteworthy cause than anyone else in this industry. I just don’t get it. Battlefield Hardline was right there, an entire series I don’t think has ever had a playable woman in it. Instead, they chose the series that has more diversity than almost any AAA series as an example of how it’s lacking. Hell, Ubisoft’s own co-op demo for The Division had a woman playable character in it, shown being played by a real person. It makes no sense to me. I wonder how many people who took up arms during E3 due to inequity in video games have been glued to the World Cup ever since. If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, this bit is rather pertinent.

I’m sure some people will cherry pick what I said above to justify calling me part of the problem. If you do, you’ll be wrong but do so if you want, I don’t care, I’m used to it. I don’t think in binary absolutes and doing so doesn’t help your cause, it just causes entrenchment and makes otherwise valid struggles that much more difficult to overcome for everyone. The wonderful Aisha Tyler (a hardcore gamer and three time host of the Ubisoft press conference) says it better than I ever could. If you don’t care what I say, you should care what she says.

As a whole, I saw a lot at this year’s E3 that I’m very excited about but a lot of it I’ll have to see more of before I put down my money. There was a lot of CG and scripted demos this year but in terms of juicing my interest to see more, there’s a lot for everyone to be happy about. Every year, Best Buy Canada and Future Shop hold a crazy E3 pre-order sale where if you pre-order three or more games, you get $20 off each. Every year, I pre-order anything I am vaguely interested in and then cancel what drops off my radar before it ships because cancelling individual games doesn’t lose you the discount so everything I do want I get at the six month price on day one. Hot tip there for next year if you live in Canada. This year, I pre-ordered twenty-three individual games, five more than I did last year and not everything I ordered last year has even come out yet. I probably won’t end up keeping them all but it just shows how much I saw that interested me.

Even if I only keep half those pre-orders, that a ton of incredible games coming and for someone like me whose main hobby is gaming, this is an incredibly exciting time. Everyone has their own tastes of course and maybe you saw more or less that interested you personally but if you’re into games, I defy you to not be interested in at least a couple of things on display at E3 this year. The AAA industry and indeed the games industry as a whole are still at an interesting crossroads, full of uncertainty and more than a little press-led fear. Even so, there are still companies, large and small, devoted to giving us a lot of awesome stuff and I think they’re delivering.

The onus is now on us to step up and support all the good stuff we want to see more of. People love to complain how safe the industry plays things and how there’s no innovation in games any more but you can’t say that on one hand and then just buy Call of Duty and Madden yet again with the other. If you want to have different experiences, you’ve got to open your wallet and support them, otherwise we will see more people playing it safe. The industry showed us some safe stuff to be sure but they showed a lot of new, potentially great things that are coming too. If they’re good, we have to show them. I will be, hopefully you will be too.

Also, on a sort of unrelated end note, I just wanted to give massive props to Giant Bomb for the incredible job they did with their coverage and live shows this year, sadly the first year without Ryan Davis. It was very entertaining and I learned a lot and enjoyed myself. After several months of being almost insufferably cynical, Jeff Gerstmann seemed to be really having a good time and loving hosting the live shows. I can’t remember the last time I saw him smile and laugh so much. It was really refreshing and I hope the show made him happy and has made him excited for the future. Great job guys, I still miss Ryan but I’m glad you’re all still here. You’re doing him proud.

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