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Can The Call Of Duty Franchise Make A Comeback?

October 3, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Industry analyst Sterne Agee has predicted another year of declining sales for Call of Duty, with Advanced Warfare expected to sell 15 per cent fewer copies than Ghosts.

To be more specific, that’s a difference of 3 million units, with Advanced Warfare expected to sell around 17 million. Obviously, that’s still a very healthy number, and the sort of success that most publishers rarely experience, but nevertheless it would be ill news for what remains Activision’s most important franchise.

Ghosts was, in itself, markedly less successful than Black Ops II, and a second year of decline will be enough to cause concern within Activision. When pre-orders for Ghosts were lower than expected, Eric Hirshberg attributed it to the transition to a new generation of consoles. With a minimum of 15 million PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones now in the wild, that explanation would not stand up quite as well with Advanced Warfare.

In a note given to Cinema Blend, Sterne Agee’s Arvind Bhatia gave several reasons for the possibility of ongoing decline, one of which was the number of people who are still waiting to upgrade to new generation hardware, and may not buy any new software until they do. The others were sharply declining sales of Xbox 360 and PS3 software, and the fact that some Call of Duty fans may have been disappointed with Ghosts.

A significant counter to that is the positioning of Battlefield: Hardline, which slipped to March 2015 release and left Activision’s franchise free of its fiercest competitor.

Given its huge investment in Bungie’s Destiny and the relatively cool critical response that greeted the game, Activision will be hoping that Sterne Agee’s research is not an indicator of Call of Duty’s long-term health.


Watch Dogs For Wii U Coming In November

September 15, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Finally, Ubisoft has a release date for the Wii U version of Watch Dogs. While we don’t know if that many people are waiting for the Wii U version, when it does release it could very well end up being one of the last M rated titles for the Wii U console.

The release date for the Wii U version of Watch Dogs appears to be November 18th in North America and November 21st in Europe. This ends the original release delay that Ubisoft announced for the Wii U version as resources were moved to prepare the other versions of the game for release.

Ubisoft has been one of the strongest supports of software for the Wii U, but recently it announced that it was done producing titles like Assassins Creed and Watch Dogs for the Wii U because the sales of these M rated titles are just not there on the Wii U platform. It did indicate that it would focus on some of its other Wii U titles that continue to be popular on the console.

The news is good that they are getting Watch Dogs, but it looks like we will not see many more games like this on the Wii U.


Is Far Cry Playing With Fire?

May 23, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

In the Far Cry games, fire is a wonderful tool. It spreads dynamically, opening up a wealth of creative and strategic possibilities for players to achieve their goals. However, it also gets out of control in a hurry, potentially coming back to hurt the player in sometimes unpredictable ways.

It’s an appropriate metaphor for the series’ approach to controversial subject matter. Last week, Ubisoft announced the development of Far Cry 4, showing off some key art in the process. The picture depicts a blonde light-skinned man in a shiny pink suit against the backdrop of the Himalayas, smirking as he uses a defaced statue as a throne. His right hand rests on the head of a darker skinned man who is kneeling before him, clutching a grenade with the pin pulled. Though we know very little about the characters depicted, their backgrounds, or their motivations, the art got people talking (and tweeting). Some were concerned about racism. Others were worried about homophobia. Many saw neither. At the same time, details about the game are so scant that it’s entirely possible the problematic elements here are properly addressed within the context of the game itself.

But at the moment, we don’t have that context. It’s promotional art, so to a certain extent, it’s designed to exist out of context, to catch the eye of someone on a store shelf, even if they’ve never heard of the series before. And while we lack the context the actual game would provide, there’s no such thing as “without context.” Here, the context we have is that this is a Far Cry game, the latest entry in a series that has been earning a reputation for boldly storming into narrative territory where other games fear to tread (often with good reason).

Like the fire propagation mechanic, this narrative ambition was introduced to the series with Far Cry 2. What had previously been just another shooter (albeit one in a tropical setting more attractive than most) became a series that embedded its stories within thorny issues. Far Cry 2 cast players as a mercenary in a fictitious African country’s prolonged civil unrest, using blood diamonds, malaria, and Western imperialism as texture in a story emphasizing the moral vacuum of war. Far Cry 3 took things a step further, with players controlling a spoiled rich white kid on a tropical island vacation who suddenly must deal with nefariously swarthy pirates and intentionally stereotypical natives. And just in case that didn’t stir up any controversy, the story also weaves in rape, sex, drugs, and torture. In both cases, some critics and players felt the games offensively trivialized important or tragic subjects.

Given this history, it’s not surprising that Far Cry 4 would not universally receive the benefit of the doubt. Much more surprising (to me, at least) is that Ubisoft is continuing down this path with the franchise. Far Cry 3 sold a staggering 9 million units, putting it in the same class of blockbuster as Assassin’s Creed (last year’s version of which sold 11 million units). However, the publisher’s narrative approach to the two games could not be more different.

Assassin’s Creed is a fascinating case study for dealing with touchy subjects in AAA video games. It wasn’t long after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq that work on the first Assassin’s Creed started. You know, the one set in the middle of a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Assassin’s Creed II had players attempt to assassinate the pope. Assassin’s Creed III put players in control of a Native American protagonist during the Revolutionary War. Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry saw the gamification of emancipation.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise draws some criticism from time to time for its handling of these subjects, but the series has rarely found itself at the flashpoint of controversy. Part of the reason for that is the Assassin’s Creed developers research their subjects thoroughly. They understand what the concerns surrounding the sensitive topics are, and by virtue of the games’ historical settings, they can point to factual evidence of certain people’s actions, or common situations of each era.

When it comes to dealing with controversy, Assassin’s Creed is much like its stealthy protagonists are imagined to be: quiet, cautious, and efficient. Far Cry, on the other hand, deals with these topics more like the way Assassin’s Creed protagonists behave when I play them: recklessly uncoordinated and endlessly destructive. Even when it’s clear Far Cry’s developers have put plenty of thought into what they’re saying, it’s not always clear they’ve put much thought into what people will hear them saying through their games.

It speaks volumes about how Ubisoft perceives the long-term value of the two series. Assassin’s Creed is the company’s biggest and most adaptable blockbuster, an annual gaming event based on a premise that can be mined and iterated on endlessly in almost any medium, a recurring revenue stream to be nurtured over time. Far Cry, this key art release suggests, is just another first-person shooter, a brand defined primarily by how hard it works to shock people, perhaps because the company doesn’t have faith that it can sell on its other merits. One of them is the kind of project you make a Michael Fassbender film around. The other might be more of an Uwe Boll joint.

I’m not saying that Far Cry should avoid these subjects. I actually love to see games of all sizes attempting to tackle topics and themes often ignored by the industry. But the right to explore those subjects should come with a responsibility to do so with care. These are legitimately painful subjects for many people. If developers want to force players to confront them, they should have a good reason for it that goes beyond pushing people’s buttons, exploiting tragedy for shock value and an early preorder campaign. In video games, we don’t push buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. We push them to do things.

Will Watch Dogs Be A Hit For Ubisoft?

May 20, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Ubisoft announced that Watch Dogs is setting pre-order records for the publisher. The company said that it’s the most pre-ordered new IP in Ubisoft’s history, the second-highest pre-ordered Ubisoft game ever, and the most pre-ordered new IP in the industry this year. Moreover, retailer GameStop confirmed that Watch Dogs is the most pre-ordered next-gen game to date.

All that said, Ubisoft actually did not disclose how many units were pre-ordered. GamesIndustry International pinged Ubisoft to ask for a pre-sales figure and we’ll be sure to let you know if we get one.

[Update: On the company's earnings conference call, executives said that they fully expect Watch Dogs to perform better than the first Assassin's Creed, meaning it should exceed 6.3 million in lifetime sales. "We expect it to become a major heavyweight of the industry," said CEO Yves Guillemot.]

“These strong pre-orders are a clear indication of players’ anticipation and excitement for Watch Dogs,” said Geoffroy Sardin, Senior VP Sales and Marketing at Ubisoft. “The teams have worked tirelessly to ensure that players will enjoy a top quality game with enormous scope, and we can’t wait to get the game into their hands.”

“We are seeing tremendous excitement for the new Watch Dogs game… It is on track to be one of the top selling video games across all consoles in 2014,” added Michael van den Berg, vice president of Merchandising at GameStop International.

Watch Dogs development is being led by Ubisoft Montreal, but similar to other massive AAA projects in the industry it’s been a collaborative effort with assistance from teams at Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft Quebec and Reflections. The game will release on May 27 for current-gen and next-gen consoles, PC and it’s coming to Wii U “at a later date.”

Why Did AMD Delay Mantle For Battlefield?

January 30, 2014 by Michael  
Filed under Around The Net, Gaming

AMD revealed Mantle to the world at its Hawaii launch event and at the time it promised support for the new API would come to Battlefield 4 sometime in December. In December, AMD said the API would show up in January.

Now though, it appears that the delay may be somewhat longer. Late yesterday Extremetech reported BF4 support would finally land in February. AMD’s Robert Hallock denied the patch is coming in February, but he didn’t say it is coming in January, either. If it is, it’s coming by Thursday. If it is not, that’s very bad news for AMD given the scale of its PR onslaught.

Back at CES the company talked up Mantle in an elaborate demonstration, featuring Oxide Games and DICE products. AMD claimed Mantle would deliver a significant performance boost over DirectX, up to 45 percent in certain scenarios. Since Mantle is not available yet, it is impossible to put these very optimistic claims to the test.

Mantle won’t be a game changer, but if it is embraced by major developers, it could give AMD a competitive edge both in discrete and integrated graphics. Intel has been making headway in the graphics department and it is closing the gap with AMD APUs with its latest Iris series GPUs.

Mantle could be AMD’s trump card, a cheap way of making its APUs more competitive without wasting silicon, but for this to happen Mantle needs to be embraced by developers. It is very promising, but at this point there are quite a few “ifs” associated with Mantle.


Will EA’s Battlefield 4 Be A Success?

December 11, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

The holiday season may have started with a lump of coal in the stockings of EA and Ubisoft. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter sent a note to investors in advance of this week’s November NPD US retail sales announcements, saying that software sales for the month would be down 13 percent due to “far weaker-than-expected debuts” for the heavily hyped Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV.

Those games’ troubles are the primary reasons Pachter believes console and handheld sales were down 13 percent to $1.25 billion, but they weren’t the only ones. Call of Duty: Ghosts sales were also lower than expected due to unflattering reviews, Pachter said, and the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches may have also put a damper on the software sales figures. Pachter reasoned that consumers either devoted their spending money to next-generation hardware launches, or decided to forgo purchasing current-gen versions of titles until they could find one of the supply constrained next-gen systems.

Speaking of the next-gen consoles, Pachter gave a considerable edge to Sony in the November sales race. He believes the PS4 sold 1.25 million units in the US during November, compared to 750,000 for the Xbox One. The PS4 launched November 15, while the Xbox One debuted November 22. The new arrivals also appear to have put a significant dent in the pre-existing competition, as Pachter predicted Wii U sales would be down 65 percent year-over-year, with Xbox 360 and PS3 sales down 44 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

The NPD Group is expected to announce its November US retail sales data this evening.

Call Of Duty Ghost Hits One Billion

November 7, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Activision has sold-in $1 billion of Call of Duty: Ghosts to retail worldwide for its first day of release.

That’s according to the publisher, which also highlights the game’s number one ranking on Xbox Live, and the most pre-ordered release at US retailer GameStop.

Activision claims over 15,000 stores opened at midnight on Monday to sell the game across the globe, although it stopped short of revealing unit figures.

“Ghosts is an amazing game which ushers in the next generation of Call of Duty,” commented Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing.

“This is the must have launch title for the next generation of consoles, and we expect Call of Duty: Ghosts to be the most successful launch title for the Xbox One and PS4 by a wide margin. In fact, according to GameStop, Call of Duty: Ghosts is their most pre-reserved next gen title.”

Battlefield Bad Company 3 Still On The Horizon

October 8, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

DICE is committed to bringing Battlefield Bad Company back for a third run eventually. While it has been talked about the studio is working on a number of other projects at the moment beyond getting Battlefield 4 out the door.
It is already known that the company is working on the new Star Wars: Battlefront 3 and Mirrors Edge 2. With the addition of DICE LA which used to be EA’s Danger Close studio, DICE has more resources, but still it is thought that the studio has pretty much all it can handle with the three titles that it is working on now.
While comments from those at DICE have suggested that the franchise is just on a long vacation, it will return at some point in the future. As of right now however the studio has confirmed that a Bad Company 3 title was not in active development at this time.


AMD Secures Battlefield 4 For A Price

October 2, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Multiple sources have told us that AMD spent between $5 and $8 million to secure the Battlefield 4 deal.

The part of the deal was to make Battlefield 4 as a part of AMD exclusive bundle, only available to select AMD partners, as well as to make sure that showcases of the game are done on AMD hardware.

This is a big commitment for EA, AMD and Dice, but all sides will benefit from it. AMD will also gave the exclusive right to Dice to play with Mantle, a new AMD API that is set to become a third player in gaming APIs next to OpenGL and DirectX.

Dice has promised to bring a Mantle update to BF4 in December 2013 and we will have to wait and see if this brings any performance increase on the existing game. Mantle is supposed to talk to “metal” directly on the transistor level, potentially making everything faster and delivering some new effects that are outside DirectX 11.2 specification.

The deal that is said to be worth between $5 million and $8 million will give AMD a new “face” in the eyes of gamers and with very good Hawaii R9 and R7 cards to launch just in time for the game, this has a chance to become quite successful PR stunt for AMD.

The question if you can really make that money on the Battlefield 4 deal and justify and a sizable investment remains to be seen, but new way of doing marketing and PR for AMD is a refreshing and brings about some much needed change.


Crytek Going To The Streets For Gaming

September 24, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Crytek has challenged developers to build software that can integrate open source street map data into video games in order to save development time and ease rendering of open world environments.

Though just a concept, the idea has been put forward as part of the IC Tomorrow’s Digital Innovation games contest, a program launched by the UK Technology Strategy Board, which is offering five businesses up to £25,000 each to develop innovative digital applications and meet the objectives of five prolific technology companies, including Crytek, Sony and Google.

Crytek’s technical director of research and development Jake Turner spoke at the programmer’s launch event on Thursday, challenging developers to help integrate the free map data with existing games engines such as Crytek’s Cryengine 3 Sandbox.

Turner said, “We had probably spent a year making a city in America of our games and it’s taken a year to before we could actually start to play the game and experience it, involving how big that city should be, how detailed that city should be, so one of the challenges here is ‘how can we do this instantly?’”

“Why do we have to use people to make a city when there’s consistent open source street data out there which is very detailed, it’s got buildings, lights, it’s got streets – material data. Why can’t we just press a button and instantly see that?”

The challenge Crytek is putting forward is for developers to built an app so that we can “instantly drop into any part of the world” and see, in 3D, data being streamed in from the open source street map data.

“One of the ultimate goals, we would like to start an office in the UK and be able to fly at the press of a button all the way to the office in Frankfurt, and drive around Frankfurt, or any place in the world,” Turner added.

“Aimed primarily to purpose-make these virtual worlds based on real world environments, opened instantaneously without processing, we’d be able to see it instantly streamed over the cloud.”

Turner revealed that if successful, the project could be made part of future games, where users themselves can decide which city in the world they would like to play in, simply jumping from one to another with the scenery being generated instantly for the player.

However, he did add that this is still “a very long way away”.


Does Infinity Ward Want The Battlefield Franchise To Succeed?

August 9, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

While much of the attention this holiday season will be the start of the “next-gen console war,” on the software side there may be no bigger showdown than Call of Duty: Ghosts vs. Battlefield 4. During his days as EA CEO, John Riccitiello seemed to be obsessed with dethroning Call of Duty from the shooter market, and even after leaving the company Riccitiello still felt strongly that Battlefield would achieve that goal this year. If you ask Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin, however, that’s really just an executive and marketing perspective.

Rubin said he actually very much enjoys seeing what other high-profile shooters are doing. It’s more about developer camaraderie and elevating games as a medium together than it is a competition.

“It’s less antagonistic, from a developer’s side – sure marketing and stuff is all [about that] but on a developer’s side it’s like, ‘Oh, did you see that stuff they’re doing? That’s so cool!’ We could do something that’s like this and that and we get excited about seeing that kind of stuff. So from a developer’s side, it definitely pushes us [to do better]. But it pushes us in a – I don’t know if other studios feel this way – but I hope in a sort of camaraderie type sense. ‘Oh, those guys are doing awesome stuff. Let’s jack up our game.’ But not like two opposing teams. Rather, like the same team pushing in the same direction,” he explained.

“I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we’re all successful”

“We all want gaming, in general to be awesome, because if gaming isn’t good, then we all lose our jobs in a sense. So for us, I think that the intellectual realization is we want everyone to be successful because if gaming is successful then we’re all successful.”

Interestingly, Infinity Ward plays psychological games with itself, so the studio doesn’t rest on its laurels. When a big franchises repeatedly breaks sales records, it’s easy to become self-assured, but Rubin wants to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“Every year, every time we made a new one it was the same thing [in terms of competition], and I like that. I think that’s the part that keeps us hungry, that keeps us… we don’t want to feel like the top dog, necessarily. We want to feel like it’s a struggle every time. We want to feel that almost ‘Rocky moment’, which is kind of a weird thing to say, but we do want to feel like that. We want to feel like we’ve got a huge challenge in front of us. We can’t just phone this in and ship a game and expect it to sell. We actually really have to do harder work this year than we did last year,” Rubin stressed.

One of the big things EA DICE has been stressing with Battlefield 4 is how next-gen is going to drive emotions and connect players with the in-game characters. Rubin agrees that this is a key element and he said that Ghosts will seek to offer that emotional connection on a couple fronts, with the military dog and the two brothers in the game.

“We actually didn’t make that big of a deal about the dog – it was just in a trailer and all of a sudden the internet blew up and made the dog became this sensation… People are so in love with the dog. They’re already emotionally invested. It’s amazing how many Twitter messages I get saying – in all caps – if you guys kill the dog, I will never play another…and I’m like, ooh, you’re emotionally attached…”

As for the two brothers in the game, Rubin noted, “We’re really trying to push – paying attention to just those two guys the whole story through and their emotional story and have the world have an emotional impact on it.” Rubin emphasized that the storyline has benefited enormously from Hollywood veteran Stephen Gaghan, who’s completely embraced the video game medium.

“He really is looking at this in a way that I’ve never seen a Hollywood writer look at it. He looks at writing for a game as an amazing chance at an artistic challenge as a writer,” Rubin said. “One of the things he described was… he goes, ‘As a writer, this is like art film. Basically, think about it. Your main character, your main star of your movie, is never seen and never talks. And so you have to craft a story that deals with that.’ Think about it. If you took a game, our game, and you put it into a film where the main character never talked, never spoke, you never saw him – it would be like one of those black and white crazy French films. So he really loves the challenge of it and he’s been really engaged with everything.”

“There’s a disconnect between Hollywood and the game industry. They have two different languages. And they haven’t in the past talked very well. And I think that’s changing,” he added.

One of the big challenges for Infinity Ward this year is not only to launch another top selling Call of Duty experience, but also to ensure the current-gen versions are just as impressive as the next-gen SKUs. After all, the bulk of sales this holiday will still be for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

“Having an agnostic start, even before next-gen came out, really helped us get into this. We’re not making one platform and then porting. All the platforms are actually made at the same time. When somebody checks some work in, they have to make sure every platform works and that that check doesn’t break on one platform… The other part of it is, the new engine that we created is across all platforms. It’s not just next-gen. So the current-gen is actually getting a lot of benefit out of this new engine,” he said.

“I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event.”

Rubin also described how Infinity Ward made “a semi-dramatic change on our pipeline internally” when it comes to art assets. “What we’ve done with this generation change, especially for the art pipeline, that being the biggest difference, is we’re making our big art assets at cinema quality, not even PC quality, but above next-gen. It’s at this really amazing looking cinema quality asset. What we’re doing, we use that and we create assets for each platform that are the best for the platform. So now every platform, instead of having a sort of average art asset, they’re getting the best asset for that platform,” he said.

A project the size of Call of Duty requires a massive amount of resources, but Infinity Ward likes to keep its size fairly small for a AAA studio. Rubin explained how the difficult past with Vince Zampella and Jason West leaving (followed by around half of the staff) actually forced Infinity Ward to reevaluate its ways and in the end, the entire studio is stronger for it.

“I’ve been at the studio since Call of Duty 2. It was, on a personal level, a pretty rough time. And the cool thing was for those of us who decided to stay, we were looking at having to do a new game with Modern Warfare 3 and to rebuild the studio, so we had to figure out how to do that,” he said. “It could have gone in any number of directions. We could have hired on a bunch of people quickly, just really mass higher and bulk up. We could have grown slowly and hired a bunch of art outsourcing companies and outsource a lot of the work. But these outside companies aren’t personally invested in the game; you give them a list of stuff to do, they do it and send it back. What we decided on – and Activision was great about supporting what we wanted to do – we found a studio in Sledgehammer who could be as passionate about the game as we would be if we did co-development. That actually worked out really well for us.”

“We were able to make Modern Warfare 3, and make it at the level and quality that we would expect, and not have to do the ballooning growth, and instead we were able to hire over time. That hiring process continued throughout Modern Warfare 3 and into Ghosts, and now we’re at the largest we have ever been. We are at 125 people, which is actually a medium to small studio nowadays for the size of the title. If you look at most other studios they are around 300 or 400 people. We feel 125 is the culturally right number to be at.”

Rubin said that the slow rehiring process actually let Infinity Ward tap into some Hollywood CG talent, and it also made the studio realize that for the long-term, working with other studios is ultimately beneficial.

“When we set out to rehire, and we said let’s make sure that bar is really high, it actually opened some interesting new doors for us, and particularly in art, animation and effects. By being in LA, we’ve ended up having to really tap into the Hollywood CG talent, and we’ve actually gotten a number of guys who’ve never done games – they’re all film guys – but they bring just a different level of quality and some new tech ideas. A lot of the tech that you see in the new engine is based on feedback from them with things like Sub-D (subdivision modeling), which is something that Pixar developed years ago and Hollywood’s been using for years but always in a pre-rendered state. For us, having it real-time in engine was a big feat for us and something we’re really happy with,” he said.

“And from an industry standpoint games are getting harder to make and they’re taking bigger and bigger budgets and bigger teams, and so this gave us an opportunity to sort of retool some of the structure internally. I think we are better future proofed for making Call of Duty going forward. And we may or may not have done this if not for that [tumultuous] event. It forced our hand to go down that route, which in the long run turned out to be good for us. I think we are much more capable now of doing these big projects. We are only 125 people and it does take more than that to make these big games, so one of the things we learned from MW3 is how to work with outside studios. That’s something we’ve never done the past. The previous games were all very insular, and that’s not really possible now. Working with outside studios like Sledgehammer was a difficult transition but now we’ve gotten past that learning phase, and so on this game we’re getting a lot of help from other studios, Raven and Neversoft.”


Do Violent FPS Have A Psychological Appeal?

April 11, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

As anyone who has accidentally walked into a room full of children can tell you, they’re good at asking the kinds of questions that just keep drilling down. “Why is the sky blue? So why does blue light get scattered more? Then why is the sky red at sunset? Where are you going?”

And although I don’t recommend it, if you were to sit one of these little buggers down with a quarterly earnings reports from EA or Activision, they might soon start asking “Why are violent video games so much more popular than other games?” It’s a tricky question to answer without falling down the why hole. Because shooting stuff is fun. Why is it fun? Because people like military themes where they can be the hero. Okay, but why is that? Because players like feeling ridiculously powerful and enormous guns let them do that. But why is that appealing? Why, why, why?

Well, some psychologists are trying to tease apart the reasons why violence sells without throwing their hands up and shouting “Just because! And I’m not even your real dad!” Researchers Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan describe how they think that the design of violent games – especially shooters – naturally does a pretty good job of satisfying some very basic psychological needs. But not in the way you may be thinking.

In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, Rigby and Ryan describe “self-determination theory,” a fairly well established framework that aims to describe why people pursue certain voluntary activities. In part, self-determination theory says that people are motivated to engage in activities to the extent that they satisfy three psychological needs:

  • 1. Competence – progressing in skill and power.
  • 2. Autonomy – being able to choose from multiple, meaningful options.
  • 3. Relatedness – feeling important to others.

What does this have to do with violent shooters? Rigby, Ryan, and their colleagues argue that many of the design principles of good shooters also happen to follow well worn paths to satisfying these three psychological needs. Let’s take a closer look.

Competence is communicated by immediate and unambiguous positive feedback in response to your actions – you see opponents stagger, see blood fly off them, and ultimately see them collapse. The beloved headshot is particularly effective in this regard. Scott Rigby notes, “I’ll often put up a slide with a great screenshot of a headshot, and it always elicits smiles. The smiles here aren’t because everyone is sadistic – they are because this is a moment of mastery satisfaction that all gamers can relate to. The blood may not be the value component, but really is just a traditional way dense informational feedback on mastery is provided.” Information about competence in shooters is also thrown at you in the form of scoreboards, rankings, weapon unlocks, and eventually the outcome of every (relatively short) match.

Autonomy, the second motivator in self-determination theory, is also well served by the design of most popular shooters. Having the option to choose many different paths through a level satisfies autonomy, as does choosing between different classes, different loadouts, or different tactics. In a lot of games you can even choose between different modes, modifiers, or maps, allowing you to satisfy the need to play a game how you please. And if that’s not enough, custom character or weapon skins or models also fit in here.

Finally, relatedness is most obviously important in multiplayer games where you can feel like part of a successful (or, perhaps more likely of pickup games, incompetent) team bound together by opposition to a common foe. To the extent that shooters communicate your contributions in the forms of scores, points, server-wide notifications, or MVP awards, relatedness will be satisfied – to say nothing of what you can get out of text and voice chat. But even most modern shooters have single player campaigns that somewhat mimic this and put you in the role of someone important to those around you.

Of course, none of these motivators is unique to shooters. They show up in good game design across all genres and themes. But violent shooters usually hit on all three, and Rigby and Ryan believe that’s there’s a big overlap between what makes an effective shooter and what satisfies multiple facets of all three of these psychological needs. So while RPGs might nail autonomy, platformers may demand competence, and MMOs may allow the most relatedness, violent shooters fire on all three cylinders.

“[Violent games] are fun not because of the blood and gore,” write Rigby and Ryan, “but because games of war and combat offer so many opportunities to feel autonomy, competence, and the relatedness of camaraderie rolled up into an epic heroic experience.” But, that all said, do shooters satisfy all these motivators so well because they’re violent?

It’s an important question, and Ryan, Rigby, and their colleague Andrew Przybylski published a 2009 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that addresses it. Part of their research involved a clever experiment where they modified Half-Life 2 to create a high-violence version of the game’s multiplayer and a low-violence version. The high violence version is pretty much what you’d expect. The low violence one, though, was created by changing the bullet-spewing guns into “tag” tools that players would use to zap opponents. Once tagged, foes would freeze and float up into the air for a second before being harmlessly teleported to a “penalty box” where they would wait to respawn into the game. So the main difference – arguably the only difference – between the two groups was how much violence there was in the game. Everything else was the same: the level layouts, the controls, and all the other stuff that satisfied competence and autonomy (unfortunately they didn’t examine relatedness). Only the violence was teased out of the equation

What did they find? Well, a lot of things. But one interesting finding was that the games in either condition were found enjoyable and both games satisfied the basic psychological needs of competence and autonomy. Even whether or not a person was naturally aggressive and normally enjoyed violent games didn’t matter once you accounted for competence and autonomy.

To me, this is vastly interesting and argues for alternatives to the go-to trope of violence and gore if you’re looking to draw people to games. It’s not the bloodshed as much as it is feeling like you’re able to make what you want happen on-screen. It’s not fetishising guns and explosions as much as it is the ability to use tactics and choose among meaningful options on the road to victory. It’s not the military themes as much as it is feeling like you’re an important part of a team.

Sure, war and military heroism are themes and experiences worthy of exploration, but there are other options that can be just as effective. Gamers may be happy to just keep buying the same game over and over again without understanding a thing about self determination theory, and publishers may only want to greenlight games that look like smash hits from the past without caring about mechanisms for satisfying psychological needs, but developers who think about these things and play around with them can definitely do something both great and different.

Will Crytek Acquire The Darksiders Franchise?

April 1, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

When Crytek opened its new Crytek USA studio, it picked up a number of the staff from Vigil when THQ hit bottom. Now, it looks like those former Vigil studio members might be lucky enough to see Crytek acquire the Darksiders franchise that these folks poured their hearts and souls into.

Crytek is apparently looking to buy the rights to the Darksiders franchise. This is not to make a new Darksiders game, but is in the spirit that the people who created the game might as well own the IP if someone if going to get it.

Former Vigil boss, David Adams, now the head of Crytek USA, went to Twitter to announce the news that Crytek would be bidding to acquire the franchise because the IP belongs at home with is creators, according to the Twitter posting.

While it is far from assured that Crytek will acquire it, the courts and the legal wrangling will determine how it shakes out. Still, it is nice thing to see that some of the former Vigil crew could end up with the IP being under the roof where they work again. It does not get anywhere close to a new Darksiders game, but it would be nice for the Vigil folks to have something good come their way.


Warhammer 40K Headed To Smartphones

March 26, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Warhammer 40K owner Games Workshop has confirmed a new licensing deal with Roadhouse Interactive to develop new titles for mobile space based on the franchise. The developer, who is based in Vancouver, describes the new Warhammer title as a side screening action game.

While Roadhouse confirms that the game is in development, the end mobile platforms that will see the released version of the game are still up in the air at the moment; but more information is sure to be coming in the months ahead, according to the studio.

The Warhammer 40K has had others attempts to capture the tabletop war game in video form before. These Warhammer offerings have met with mixed reviews, but this new title from Roadhouse will be a first for Warhammer 40K in the mobile space.


Crysis 3 Skipping The Wii-U

January 9, 2013 by Michael  
Filed under Gaming

Crytek chief executive officer Cevat Yerli has told Digital Spy that Crysis 3 won’t be coming to the Nintendo Wii U because there’s no “business drive” between Electronic Arts and Nintendo.

“There have been discussions between Nintendo and EA and Crytek, but the bottom line is that there is that there’s not enough business drive in it,” Yerli told Digital Spy.

“I’d love to see it on Wii U, but what I love to see and what gets done at the end of the day are two different things. Even so, I could initiate it but someone has to sell it, right?” said Yerli. “It’s a business decision between EA and Nintendo. If that business decision doesn’t make sense, or seems to not make sense for them, it’s… not possible for us to make it. We can’t publish ourselves, and that’s the bottom line.”

Crysis 3 will be coming Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on February 19 in North America and February 22 in Europe. Electronic Arts has released the Unreal Engine 3-powered Mass Effect 3 and versions of EA Sports’ Madden NFL 13 and FIFA 13 on Nintendo’s new console.