Tag Archives | Games

Microsoft Reportedly Keen on Wii-Killing Motion Cam

zcamHere’s a fun little rumor:  Microsoft is said to be mulling an acquisition of 3DV Systems, an Israeli company that makes “virtual reality” imaging technology for digital cameras. The implication is that advanced motion controls are coming to the Xbox 360, or perhaps Microsoft’s next console.

The report comes from Haartez, a respectable Israeli newspaper, but lacks sources or quotes. Microsoft is reportedly offering $35 million to acquire 3DV — not a fantastic deal considering the company has already raised $38.6 million. Some investors would lose out if the report comes to fruition.

3DV made news at the end of 2007 when it unveiled the ZCam. Unlike the Playstation’s EyeToy and the Xbox Live Vision camera, which only read location in two dimensions, the ZCam detects depth as well. VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi, who also wrote about the Haaretz report, said from first-hand experience that the ZCam is “much more” accurate than the Wii’s motion controllers.

It’s obvious why Microsoft might be interested in the technology; now that everyone’s seen how much money the Wii is making, console makers are questioning the old video game model of thumbplay. A device that allows players to punch toward the screen with their fists or flap their arms to make avatars fly sounds fun, and therefore lucrative. It’s not a carbon copy of the Wii, but it’s a similar enough to make for healthy competition with Nintendo.

I don’t doubt that Microsoft is considering various motion control technologies for video games. Entertainment division president Robbie Bach hinted along those lines when he said it’ll take more than something “faster and prettier” to lure consumers the next time around. But rumors come and go about current generation motion controllers, and speculation on the Xbox 720 (or, for that matter, whether it’ll be called that) isn’t a rarity either. It’s a little early to say how the ZCam will play into Microsoft’s future gaming plans, if at all.


Red Ring of Death Nightmares Are Over, Says Microsoft

rrodAre the Xbox 360-killing problems that cause the infamous Red Ring of Death gone? And will people who send in their consoles for repairs have to cycle through the process multiple times to get a real fix?

Over at Edge, Kris Graft put those questions to Microsoft’s Aaron Greenberg, who said the console’s biggest technical woes have come to pass. “We’ve put the worst behind us on this, but we know there are a few lagging systems, and so we want to take those and make it right,” Greenberg said. Asked about the technical nitty-gritty of hardware updates, Greenberg wouldn’t answer, saying that Microsoft’s attorneys “would not allow me to say that.”

In the summer of 2007, Microsoft fessed up to an “unacceptable number” of defective systems. We’ve heard of failure rates as high as 30 percent — which I’m skeptical of — but the company never provided specifics. In any case, all console owners were given an extended 3-year warranty should any red ring problems arise.

Since then, new Xbox 360s received an upgrade. These so-called “Jasper” models feature a new motherboard and a smaller, cooler-running GPU. This is huge, because ATI’s original graphics card was at risk for overheating, thus warping the motherboard and putting undue stress on solder joints. Greenberg said the improvements that went into the new models also go into repairs.

In stores, different Xbox 360 models aren’t clearly marked on the packaging. If you’re considering a new console, look for “12,1A” where the power information is listed on the back of the box. Greenberg, always restrained when he’s talking about this stuff, told Ars Technica last month that Microsoft obscures that information because it wants customers “to buy with confidence,” he said. “They shouldn’t, you know, get hung up on the internal components of the device.” (Read: We don’t want them to worry that it’ll brick.)


Acclaim’s Music Game Approach Could Please Labels

rockfreeThe massive multiplayer music game RockFree has been in public beta for a while now, and will launch for real in a few weeks. When that happens, players will get a taste of the revenue model that’s built to please record labels more than that of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, VentureBeat’s Evan Van Zelfden reports.

In those console hits, the publishers paid a flat fee to license each song, with Activision paying $20,000 per track. Naturally, the troubled music industry gets irritated when the game franchises then rake in millions of dollars, or billions in the case of Guitar Hero.

Acclaim won’t pay any licensing fees at all. Instead, CEO Howard Marks said his company will hand over 20 percent of the revenue from microtransactions to a song’s master holder and publisher.

The otherwise free-to-play game includes three playlist “slots” that can be filled with selections from an online library or uploaded by users. Players can purchase more slots at $1 a pop, and Marks expects that the average user who chooses to pay will fork over $14 per month for this privilege. Warner Music — whose CEO, Edgar Bronfman Jr., called the flat fees for Guitar and Rock Band “paltry” — is in the database for RockFree.

I’m a little skeptical that RockFree will be more lucrative for record labels. At 20 cents for every new track, 100,000 transactions per song are needed to equal what Activision was paying for its Guitar Hero tracks. And the problem with that is, RockFree kind of stinks. Massive multiplayer perks aside, banging out guitar tracks on a computer keyboard doesn’t compare to wielding a fake plastic instrument — which isn’t as cool as playing a real instrument, but that’s another story.

This arrangement will probably work out nicely for the companies involved because it’s happening on a smaller scale. I don’t expect it to shake up how the bigger console franchises are doing business.

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Midway Files for Bankruptcy

mortalkombatlogoThis is no surprise, seeing as the company was looking at $150 million in debt last December with just 50 days to pay it, but today Midway Games filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

Chairman, President and CEO Matt Booty called the filing “a difficult but necessary decision,” adding that it buys the company time to figure out how to proceed from here. For now, business continues as usual, and Midway has filed several First Day Motions in hopes of keeping it that way as restructuring takes place.

But enough of that business talk. As various publications covered the news today, they unwittingly pointed out the publisher’s biggest flaw. “Midway Games Inc., the creator of the Mortal Kombat video-game series … ,” wrote the L.A. Times. “Midway, famous for its ‘Mortal Kombat’ franchise … ,” Reuters noted. “The long-struggling publisher of Mortal Kombat filed for bankruptcy this morning,” Kotaku wrote.

See the pattern? Now, try to think of another major publisher whose entire existence is defined by one franchise. EA’s got Madden, but it also has The Sims and Spore. Activision has Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and — after becoming Activision-Blizzard — World of Warcraft. Ubisoft has several successful franchises under the Tom Clancy umbrella.

You could argue that Take-Two will be remembered most for Grand Theft Auto, but that just proves my point. GTA seems to reinvent itself as something new and exciting with each generation, but Mortal Kombat is no longer revolutionary. Cartoonish blood and gore, once a novel concept, is old hat now. Without that trick up its sleeve, the franchise became a follower of better button-mashers like Soul Calibur, Tekken and Virtua Fighter. To be fair, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is doing well, but that idea is more of a gimmick than a long-term cash cow.

The sad thing is, Midway was once a glorious game publisher. It put out Space Invaders and Ms. Pac-Man, for goodness sakes. And who could forget NBA Jam?

Apparently, everybody. I could go on about why those games aren’t viable anymore, but the point is that Midway has done little to stay relevant. While other companies have figured out how to milk their best franchises through the years, Midway seems like it never grew out of the arcade era.


Sony vs. Microsoft: A History of Trash Talk

xbox360ps3When Microsoft boasted of 1 million sign-ups for the Xbox 360’s Netflix application — covered briefly Thursday in Harry’s “5Words” news roundup — Sony struck back, saying the Playstation 3’s movies and rentals download faster and don’t require subscription fees. Ouch.

But this was just the latest in an endless back-and-forth between the rival companies. Taken as a whole, this record of petty bickering actually makes for a good overview of each console’s pros and cons. Join us after the jump for more snipes, disses and burns. Continue Reading →


Activision Looking for “Bullshot” Artists

Every once in a while, a video game publisher will be outed for producing doctored screenshots of a popular title. There’s usually some sort of outcry, followed by assurances that this happens all the time, and eventually we forget about the whole thing.

So even though I’ve definitely heard of this phenomenon before, I was shocked to read today that Activision is actually looking for someone to create these “Bullshots.” In a job posting for “Art Services Screenshot Associate,” one of the listed duties is to perform “advanced retouching of screenshots and teach skills to others as needed.” You might want to cast a skeptical eye when images surface for the next Wolfenstein, Call of Duty and James Bond titles.


Previous games to flaunt doctored images include Killzone 2 (pictured above, can you guess which is retouched and which is from the actual trailer?), Red Steel and Madden ’06, with Web comic Penny Arcade claiming the term “Bullshot” after seeing the latter example. Coincidentally, GamePro published a nice feature on the subject earlier this month.

If history repeats itself, we should see the latest news brushed away by publishers and apologists. “It isn’t any secret that many publishers touch up screenshots before sending them out to the public,” IGN explains in its coverage of the story. “If a game doesn’t look snazzy enough in its current form, digital artists can make sure you and I don’t get the ‘wrong idea’ about an upcoming game.”

For my part, I’ll make sure to remember these examples when looking at any screenshot I see from here on, because this is ridiculous.


Is EA Trying to Sims-ify Spore?

Spore BoxMy, how Spore is multiplying.

When the much-hyped evolution sim was released in September, along with it came Spore Creatures for the Nintendo DS and Spore Origins for mobile phones. In November, we got the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack — basically a cache of extra appendages to tinker with — and come springtime we’ll get a full expansion in Spore: Galactic Adventures.

But wait, there’s more.

Yesterday, Electronic Arts confirmed Spore Hero for the Wii and Spore Hero Arena for the DS, plus a PC spin-off called Spore Creature Keeper. If you lost count, that’s seven additional Spore games, spin-offs and expansions to hit shelves within more or less a year of the original game’s release.

It occurs to me that EA is trying to “Sims-ify” Spore — i.e., turn it into a massive brand that can be continually milked for more revenue. This isn’t a major revelation, given that the guy behind Spore, Will Wright, also created the Sims, and that the franchise has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Still, this time around it seems forced.

Wikipedia, of all places, gives a nice, scanable overview of how the Sims brand was distributed over time. It started with the main game in January 2000, followed by the “Livin’ Large” expansion pack in August 2000. The next add-on didn’t come until April 2001, and after that it was a steady stream of roughly bi-annual expansions. The official sequel came in 2004, and a third title is coming this year.

The current cycle with Spore seems to be moving faster. Granted, that’s because the approach is different, with EA immediately expanding the brand beyond the PC, but I wonder how effective that will be for Wii and DS owners who haven’t played the main game. Even if you are a big Spore fan and are willing to enjoy the franchise across multiple platforms, all these auxiliary releases — so soon from the original launch date — must feel like an overload.

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Has Microsoft Flight Simulator Been Canceled after 29 Years?

Microsoft Flight SimulatorReports this morning have it that Microsoft’s venerable Flight Simulator game may be realistically simulating the fate of Pan Am, Eastern, and TWA: Supposedly the Microsoft layoffs announced yesterday include the program’s entire development team, and it’s therefore being discontinued. I hope it’s a false alarm. I’ve never sat inside FS’s cockpit even once, but I feel like it’s been part of my life for almost as long as I’ve been using personal computers (that would be 31 years as of this summer).

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Xbox Live Gets Into Inauguration Day Spirit

Xbox PosterAfter a hard day’s work, and a bit of watching the Inauguration Day festivities, I popped on my Xbox to find some of the presidential pomp and circumstance billed prominently for free viewing over Xbox Live.

The handful of video clips include the swearing in of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the performance by Aretha Franklin and the classical number featuring Yo-Yo-Ma and Itzhak Perlman. There’s also a video of “man on the street” Xbox Live gamers talking about what they’d like to see from Obama when he takes office.

Apparently, Microsoft’s PR wing announced this earlier in the day, but seeing it on my own was pretty cool. A rep tells me by e-mail that this is “less about political awareness and more about activating the LIVE community around events that are relevant and social,” and says a similar initiative is in the works for football fans.

Of course, scrolling down from the free content reveals a whole bunch of things you can buy, like network news specials and movies related to the presidency, but that’s okay. I’ve always hoped that Microsoft would use free content (besides demos) as a lure to the paid stuff, and this is a good place to start. I’m even tempted to use my handful of spare Microsoft points to rent “All the President’s Men” later.

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Study: Gore Does Not a Fun Game Make

Instinctively, you’d think the flying giblets and gore of first-person shooters like Half-Life add a bit of visceral fun to the game, making it more attractive to players. A new study out of the University of Rochester disputes that idea.

Researchers in the graduate department of social psychology found that violent content doesn’t motivate people to play, at least not any more than a game without guns or swords. The research consisted of 2,670 gamer surveys and two experiments.

For the experiments, researchers created custom mods of Half-Life 2, one that focused on shooting enemies with a shotgun and another that required psychic powers to float opponents “up very serenely into the air before evaporating,” according to lead author Andrew Przybylski. He said roughly five percent of the subjects showed aggressive tendencies, but most said the added violence didn’t increase the game’s fun factor.

There is one point that’s missed here: Attacking someone with psychic powers is still violent on some level. Heck, the act of stomping on a goomba has aggressive undertones. Those examples aren’t as sensational as Halo or Grand Theft Auto, but the message — that a conflict should be dealt with through aggression rather than mediation — is the same.

That’s why I’m surprised to see Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson throw his support behind the study. Anderson has published several reports that attempt to link violent video games and aggression. He’s a polarizing figure, if only because pundits and politicians use his work as fodder for their own agendas.

“A common belief held by many gamers and many in the video game industry –that violence is what makes a game fun – is strongly contradicted by these studies,” Anderson said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press. He then talks about satisfying gamers’ “competence urge” without resorting to violence.

“Whoever does this well will be able to tap into a much larger market,” he wrote.

Even if his support is somewhat contradictory, I can’t say it’s unwelcome. Finding middle ground between video games’ cheerleaders and detractors is the key to resolving the whole violence issue,  and this is a step in the right direction.

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