Tag Archives | Gaming

The Curious Case of Xbox Live Pricing

xboxlivecardWith video games, I’ve become accustomed to standardized prices. The exception is used games and dated titles, but most things cost the same no matter where you go. That hasn’t been the case lately with Xbox Live, Microsoft’s online gaming service.

Earlier this year, discounts on Xbox Live subscriptions started popping up in stores and online. Toys R Us, Amazon, Best Buy and Buy.com were all peddling a 13-month membership cards for $30. That’s $20 less than what Microsoft charges for a year.

When all this was going down, I sent multiple e-mails to our Microsoft PR contact, asking what’s up. Specifically, I wanted to know whether Microsoft has any pull when it comes to these price drops, and whether we’ll ever see them go away. I never got an answer.

While those dirt-cheap deals have come and gone, Microsoft itself is now getting in on the act, offering $10 discounts to anyone who upgrades from a Silver subscription to Gold (the one that lets you play online). A company rep tells Joystiq that this is a “limited time” offer, but doesn’t specify when it will end.

Meanwhile, Amazon, Newegg.com and Buy.com are still offering discounts of roughly $10. Unlike Microsoft’s offer, existing Gold subscribers can use these cards to renew their memberships.

And so the million dollar question emerges: Does all of this indicate a permanent price drop for Xbox Live? Microsoft says no, but at least $50 isn’t the be-all end-all subscription price — for now, at least. If you’re looking to start or renew your membership, shop around first.


A Final Bell Tolls for the Original Xbox

xboxMicrosoft discontinued out-of-warranty repairs for the original Xbox this week, giving a sense of closure to the company’s first stab at video game consoles. If you don’t have a warranty and need something fixed, you’re on your own; perhaps it’s time to upgrade.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this — after all, Microsoft stopped producing the console three years ago, and software is mostly relegated to bargain bins at Gamestop — but it’s a sad day when a company decides that keeping old hardware up and running is no longer worth the trouble.

Thing is, I never found the Xbox to be a particularly endearing console, especially compared to its competition. The Playstation 2 is still a workhorse, putting out new games and transitioning from hardcore platform to family gaming device. Trading mine away just to get a taste of Halo feels like a soulless maneuver in retrospect, a cold means to an admittedly addictive end. The Gamecube, to me, was the unsung hero, hosting some incredible first-party games — Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros. Melee, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, to name a few — but getting a bad rap for being technically weak.

Ultimately, the best original Xbox games became compatible with the Xbox 360, rendering the first console worthless if you owned both. The same could be said about the Gamecube and Wii, but here’s the difference: The Xbox is downright ugly, and a space hog to boot. There was little to lament when I cleared it out of my entertainment center years ago.

And yet, it’s still getting a fair amount of play in the U.S. In 2008, the first-gen Xbox was actually more popular than the Playstation 3 in terms of playing time, though I’m sure this year will be different.

I want to finish this requiem with something profound, but there’s not much else to say. Unlike the many other consoles I’ve owned through the years, the Xbox just isn’t one to get nostalgic over.


Street Fighter IV: Appeasing the Old-School

sfivryuWhile relaxing at a friend’s house last weekend, an ad for Street Fighter IV aired during a commercial break from SportsCenter. I recognized it right away — Chun Li and Zangief battling amidst a layer of artistic flourishes —and a lull soon filled the room as my friends followed suit. Finally, when Ken and Ryu made an appearance, one of my buddies, who hasn’t owned a game console since we met in college, spoke up.

“Is that Street Fighter?”

That, I imagine, is the response Capcom was going for. Yes, Street Fighter is back, just as you remember it, but stuffed with polygons instead of pixilated 16-bit sprites.

Actually, Street Fighter never went away. Dedicated fans kept the series alive in Japanese arcades and the few left here in the states. Each incremental release after the iconic Street Fighter II was more obscure than the last, tailor-made for players with twitch reflexes and a rock-solid memory of combos. For the average gamer, challenging any of these veterans would constitute a wasted quarter.

So in reinventing the series, Capcom had the unenviable challenge of appeasing its base while bringing lost fans — myself included — back into the fold. The result is actually quite admirable.

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Hi5 Pairs Games With Social Networking

hi5The social networking site Hi5, which pulls in 60 million unique visitors per month thanks to its success in Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa, is launching a games channel with community features.

On description alone, this appears to follow in the footsteps of Facebook, as both sites allow friends to track high scores and challenge each other in a variety of games. The difference, a spokeswoman explained to me, is centralization.

Hi5’s game page — accessed through a tab on top of the screen — resembles popular flash game sites like Miniclip and AddictingGames. You’re presented with a smattering of colorful, simple flash games like “Eek!” (read: Whack-a-Mole) and Skee-Ball. But unlike Facebook’s game apps, which require users to “allow access” before playing, Hi5’s offerings are immediately available to all registered users. All games on the site share a common scoring and challenging system, because Hi5 builds it into each game.

Monetization efforts are more in your face on Hi5 than they are on Facebook, featured prominently at the end of each game. In time, Hi5 will add premium games and in-game content as another source of revenue. Region-specific games and crowdsourced translations are also in the pipeline, both of which fall in step with the site’s global popularity.

Hi5’s setup and features remind me of another social networking site, Kongregate, which is geared exclusively towards gamers. Users there get Xbox-style Achievements and dedicated chat rooms for each game, plus the usual global and game-specific high score lists. Given that Kongregate has been around for a while, I’d choose that if I were looking to build a new community of fellow flash gamers. Hi5 might work best the other way around; if you’re already using it, and you want to get your friends in on some gaming, it seems like good times.


Nintendo Dominates ’08 in Sales Figure Shocker

Super MarioI can be sarcastic in a headline, right? No matter, retail research firm NPD released last year’s video game sales data today, revealing–of course–that Nintendo’s Wii console and DS handheld were the big winners.

Perhaps there’s some surprise in knowing the DS was the most popular last-minute holiday item, selling 3.04 million units to the Wii’s 2.15 million units in December. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 came in second place, selling 1.44 million consoles last month. Sony’s PSP handheld sold 1.02 million units in December, besting the Playstation 3’s 726,000 units.

Overall, sales of video games, consoles and related products in 2008 rose 19 percent from the year before. I was going to break out the calculator, do some research, and compile a list of total 2008 console sales, but realized the kind folks at Video Game Sales Wiki already took care of that, so here are the numbers:

Wii: 10,151,000

Nintendo DS: 9,951,100

Xbox 360: 4,735,400

PSP: 3,829,600

Playstation 3: 3,544,900

With everything laid out like this, the 1.2 million unit difference between the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 isn’t so bad, especially when you consider how handily the Wii stomped both of them.

As for games, Wii Play and its bundled Wii Remote was the top seller of 2008 — you’d know this by standing in a GameStop and seeing the employees pitch it to everyone buying a console — with Mario Kart Wii and Wii Fit taking silver and bronze respectively. Careful, though, because NPD’s counts the same game separately when released for more than one console. Add Grand Theft Auto IV’s PS3 and Xbox 360 sales together, and it’s actually in second place overall.

NPD Analyst Anita Frazier noted that most of the best-sellers were released long before the holiday season. “Get some high profile releases out in the first and second quarters,” she suggested. Some publishers are taking this advice to heart, with big name titles like Lord of the Rings: Conquest and Halo Wars being saved for the first quarter of 2009.

Frazier also noted that as the economy melted in the fourth quarter, people kept buying games. Add that to the list of unsurprising revelations of 2008.


Wild Prediction: New Game Consoles in 2010, 2011

Nintendo Entertainment SystemAdmittedly I’m no Michael Pachter when it comes to foretelling the future of video games, but with Microsoft exec Robbie Bach saying that we won’t see a new Xbox 360 for a while, the temptation to speculate is too overwhelming. So join me as I wildly predict when the next round of consoles will come along.

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Crayon Physics Deluxe: Drawing Up Something New

Endless possibility is not a notion easily conveyed in video games. Sandbox titles like Grand Theft Auto seem limitless at first, but that illusion disappears once you discover their boundaries. Perhaps that’s why the free-drawing puzzles of Crayon Physics Deluxe are so alluring.

A YouTube demo of the game boasts roughly 2 million views to date, but even without the Tablet PC and stylus seen in that presentation, Crayon Physics Deluxe feels like an exercise in freedom.


The premise is simple: lead a small, red ball — etched in crayon, as the title suggests — to a star that’s strategically placed elsewhere on the screen. This is accomplished with a crayon of your own, which you can use to stencil just about anything. Create a ramp and give the ball a nudge, and it’ll go rolling down. Expand on this by rendering a seesaw and drop a hand-drawn box on the other end to send your ball flying. By the end of the game, you’ll be etching pulleys, hammers, backboards and even vehicles.

Level selection is much like the semi-linear world maps of Super Mario Bros. 3, with branching paths that allow you to skip certain levels and come back to them later (and you can draw on them, as seen below). There’s no plot to tie the 80 challenges together, just a straightforward presentation of one level after the next. In a way, this is a fault, as it robs the Crayon Physics Deluxe of the personality you often see in indie games. Parents, however, might find an opportunity for imagination in the empty spaces, fitting perfectly with the game’s whimsical art and music.

Crayon Physics Deluxe masterfully achieves the illusion of having no limits. With the exception of an occasional tutorial level, it often seems that you could solve each puzzle in a handful of ways. In reality though, it’s hard to say, because you’re never really sure if the game’s designer, Petri Purho, anticipated the solution you chose.


For example, some puzzles I solved the elegant way. It was clear that my drawings were exactly what Purho intended, taking advantage of all the level’s obstacles and objects and reaching the star with pinpoint accuracy.

I also resorted to cruder solutions. Several times, I trapped the ball in a narrow corridor and drew platforms under it, causing them to clip with the bottom side of the ball and force it upwards. In another instance, out of frustration, I started scribbling over a big, clunky monster, only to see that I was actually moving it in the right direction.

By the end of the game, it seemed that I could bypass puzzles entirely by building my own walls and constructing pulleys and seesaws as I deemed fit. Because this rigid strategy worked wonders toward the game’s end, I felt that perhaps Crayon Physics Deluxe’s boundaries weren’t so limitless after all.

But I find it hard to believe that Purho didn’t anticipate this kind of trickery. There was, after all, a level that made pulleys nearly impossible, after I had relied on them for so long. At the same time, every solution that isn’t totally seamless feels like you’re gaming the system.


Still, Crayon Physics Deluxe fails to carry the illusion of freedom as far as it can go. If you’re having fantasies of drawing up massive Rube Goldberg devices, forget it. It’s extremely rare for a solution to require more than a couple steps, partly because each level is confined to the area of your screen. The rare levels that are more elaborate are so satisfying to complete that it makes you wish for more of them.

In any case, don’t let my musings on endless possibility give you the wrong impression; Crayon Physics Deluxe is a must-play. It’s the kind of game I get excited about, because the concept is just so much cooler than the stuff we see every day in gaming. That’s why the YouTube video was so popular, and it’s why you should grab your own stylus, mouse or trackball and try the game yourself.


Is Wii Sports Better Than Super Mario Bros.?

Super Mario Bros.In terms of units sold, the answer is “yes.” VGChartz, a Web site that gathers game sales data, says the Wii’s flagship title passed Mario’s first big adventure as of December 27, 2008.

But not everyone is happy about this. CNet columnist Don Reisinger says it’s an “insult” to compare Wii Sports to Super Mario Bros. and other classics. “It’s not that I dislike Wii Sports or haven’t enjoyed my time playing it,” he wrote. “I just don’t see how it can be held in the same high regard as Super Mario Bros.”

Respectfully, I disagree. To play Super Mario Bros. now is to experience a rudimentary platform game with slippery controls and repetitive play. In other words, it’s not very good, but it opened the door to a new world of gaming. Reisinger calls Wii Sports a “proof of concept,” but how could we view Super Mario Bros. any differently?

Better games for the Nintendo Entertainment System eventually came along, and I suspect the same thing will happen to Wii Sports, but both games — and the systems they came bundled with — arrived at time where the game industry was at a crossroads.

A year before the NES reached the U.S., the American game industry crashed. Consumers were tired of the same old shovelware, and the bubble of new consoles and games simply burst. Mario and his cohorts opened new creative doors, and suddenly video games were back in style.

Today’s game industry, though healthy, is also in a rut. The core gamers that support blockbusters like Halo and Grand Theft Auto are but a slice of the general population. When Ninendo’s “Revolution” project came along, with its motion controls instead of shinier graphics, the company was laughed at — until the Wii became the most sought-after console on the market. And it’s not because of the system as a whole. It’s because people want to play Wii Sports, a game that offers new possibilities, but remains simple and fun like gaming used to be.

Personally, that’s not what I look for in a video game, and if I were king, I wouldn’t dub either of these titles as the best of all time. But Super Mario Bros. and Wii Sports both equally deserve their accolades, not insults.


The Perfect 99-Cent iPhone Game

Now and then, a young and idealistic programmer will provide the Internet with an “art game” — that is, a computer game that eschews pure entertainment value in favor of a deep, philosophical statement. It’s the stuff that convinces some game journalists of gaming’s worth, beyond just guns, cars and magic mushrooms.

The trouble with these games, though, is the lack of a distribution and revenue model. Most are only interesting for a few minutes, so you can count them out of retail stores. Downloading is an alternative, but art games are often available for free, with the programmer simply soliciting donations. Moreover, the average joe never hears of art games to begin with. To better succeed, these games need to confront potential players more directly, with a price point that makes them worth trying.

Apple’s support of Passage for the iPhone nails this concept perfectly. For 99 cents, players can experience an abstract take on the human life cycle, broken down into a few poetic gestures. Basically, you navigate a young male avatar along a narrow strip of oversized pixels, collecting treasure. You can obtain a wife along the way, but her position by your side makes it harder to move and pursue material matters. Either way, your character inevitably ages and dies.


If my description didn’t do the game justice, it’s worth spending a buck to see it for yourself. And if you’re so taken by the game, you can easily evangelize it to your friends when they insist on playing with your iPhone. And that, I gather, is the point.

Also, check out Esquire’s excellent profile of Jason Rohrer, who created Passage, to learn more about the decidedly non-stereotypical game designer.


Wii? PlayStation 3? Who Needs ‘Em?

Electronic Game TeaserWeird but true: I never owned a Simon, an Atari 2600, or a Vectrex…but I’m still nostalgic for all of them. So we’re following up our absurdly popular gallery of Apple patents with one of evocative images from patent filings for electronic playthings. If you don’t have a soft spot for any of them, you’re a lot younger than I am or a lot older. Or a Martian.

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