Like a scent of vanilla…

Last September, I was playing the rather naughty Action Neptune U. While the game was quite satisfying on the ecchi side, that was not the case in terms of gameplay. A lot too easy, Compile Heart’s latest title wasn’t worth much as an action game. As I was lamenting the fact that no Neptunia spin-off had been polished enough so far, its developer Tamsoft issued an update to re-balance the game. After a few tries in Budokai mode, it was clear that the normal mode was back to normal and the impossible mode really impossible. «Better late than never», they say. Though I’m happy that Neptune U became better, it remains that I’d been robbed of my experience on my 1st playthrough…

This misfortune lead me to finally ask myself the question : why can we no longer receive games that are finished and complete? Botched launches aren’t exactly rare anymore : Sim City, Atelier Shallie, Assassin’s Creed Parity, Pokemon X/Y, Battlefield 4, Senran Kagura 2, Sonic Boom… Every time, the quality of the game experience diminishes and the reputation of the developer/publisher is badly hurt. This is a lose-lose situation, so why, WHY? I think we are collateral victims of the economic cycles of today’s game industry. The game industry, especially the core gamer side, tends to grow. The bigger companies get, the more ressources and cash they need. There is no such thing as infinite growth, so at some point the need to improve the experience to keep being successful collides with profitability and treasury aspects. Assassin’s Creed or Atelier must have a new entry every year, no matter how much innovation or improvement have to be implemented (which takes time). As Neptunia is niche, Compile Heart has to release Neptunia games regularly to activate the economic leverage. Cash must comes in, revenues must be recorded by the end of the fiscal term, making deadlines increasingly imperative.

Everything is going too fast. The whole industry looks like a hamster running on its wheel and unable to stop without falling down. The funny thing is that I myself tend to clear my games faster as the offer gets richer, so I ironically add steam to this vicious circle. We, developers as well as players, have to SLOW DOWN. We need to re-learn to take our time and appreciate great gaming. I’m telling you that but I don’t know if it’s even possible : world competition is too intense, a small delay can cost millions. In the same time, the unstoppable hype, further accelerated by the internet, drives people into buying day one. Unless a major economic schock happens, there might be no way out of this.

This particular issue has an echo in another trend : the growing number of «plus» versions. It’s pretty common nowdays to see a game re-released with additionnal and more or less relevant content. That trend is quite heavy : Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate, Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate, Atelier EschaLogy +, Hyperdimension Neptune Rebirth 3, God Eater 2 Rage Burst, Samurai Warriors 4-II, Pokemon Noir&Blanc 2, Tôkiden Kiwami, Yôkai Watch 2.5, Ultra Street Fighter 4, Arcana Heart 3 Love Max… this mainly Japanese habit has become natural before we even could question its legitimacy (please note that I exclude remakes/remasters, which are a different problem). In fact, this practice has legitimacy because it allows the games to be known by people who weren’t aware/motivated at release of the vanilla version, who can buy at better value. However, it very penalising for owners of the original version, for two reasons.

I was talking favorably about DLC earlier this year. If the publisher discard the DLC option to complete the Vanilla version, the buyer has to re-open his wallet at full price to enjoy the new content of its favorite game. Why doesn’t Tecmo, when it releases Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate, allow DOA5 owners to download the new characters as DLC? Why should DOA5 players spend 40€ on a new game rather than 4€ on a DLC? Long-term fans and day-one buyers are important and publishers should cherish them. When Sega releases Hatsune Miku Project Diva F on PS3 in March 2013, the company also readies a DLC so that the owners of the Vita version can complete their game. But this honorable example is unfortunately rare and we can sense a rampant blackmail destined to take advantage of the passion of the core fans. And you have a creativity problem too : more +versions means less new and innovating games. KoeiTecmo, absolute champion of the practice and ready for anything when a Nintendo subsidy arrives, virtually hasn’t announced any new game for a year. The trouble is that there’s no stopping this, for th very simple reason it makes shitloads of money : more than 50% of buyers turned up for MH4U or Tôkiden Kiwami, 70% of Mk2 owners bought Neptune Rebirth2, etc. Less costly to develop and still facing large demand, those +versions are a dream-like tool for publishers to post hefty profits.

If only it were be limited to software. But no, because now you also have vanilla hardware! The latest example is 3DS, the «New» model of which, way more refined, instantly makes you regret your old machine. But let’s not blame Nintendo too much here, because Sony and Microsoft made you re-purchase console before that. Failure rate of the Xbox360 is well-known, numerous fat PS3s were YLODed (it was Black Ops that killed mine), the lens in the first PS2 wasn’t designed to last (mine kicked the bucket during an umpteenth FFVIII walkthrouh). While all this looks awfully like planned obsolescence to get twice the console sales, Nintendo’s attitude is especially worrisome because it’s no more technical fiddling but a willingness the control costumer behaviour.

This growing laisser-faire in the game industry creates unease. The very notion of product and service quality is mocked and we don’t seem to be able to do anything. And indeed, despite the disappointment, how much upset we may be, our passion eventually banishes doubts and anger. If Compile Heart announces Action Neptune U2, I know I will shed 100€ in the Japanese LE. Because beyond the hiccups, we forgive more easily than we blame. Such is our passion.

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DLC, a half-full glass

Selvaria k

I still remember my first paid DLC. It was Selvaria’s mission in the great Valkyria Chronicles. A that time, I thanked the Heavens for having made DLCs possible, because I had been dreaming to play this character whom I liked in the main story, but who was unfortunately on the side of the «bad guys». Five years later, is DLC still as exciting or is the dream shattered?

Bear in mind that every work deserves salary. DLC represents some work, so someone has to pay for it. Consequently, free DLC can only be an exception : it’s a gesture from the publisher. I’m saying that because I was shocked of the racket surrounding the Marie-Rose DLC in Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate, which was 6€. «Too expensive» some were saying, «suckers» others shouted. A reminder in micro-economics is in order : what is a price? A price is what by which two parties exchange a product or a service and would be ready to redo it in the same conditions. In other words, if the client buys a keeps being satisfied, the price is right. There is a concept that materializes exactly that : consumer value. Consumer value is the value that each individual would allocate to a given product or service. The challenge for the publisher is to correctly assess the average consumer value to achieve the widest target possible. For example, my consumer value of Hyperdimension Neptune Victory is 135€ (since it’s the price I paid for the LE). On the other hand my consumer value of Mario 3D World is zero, because I wouldn’t play it even if I could have it for free. Consequently COD DLCs are fine. I myself find them quite expensive, but millions of people gladly foot the bill every single year. Why should I be right against the free opinion of millions? To see it from another angle, it’s just a discreet way to inflate game prices in a whole. The industry raises the stakes, up to you to call or not.

Let’s not put all DLCs in the same bag an let us explore the example of Valkyria Chronicles which is the perfect illustration of the various philosophies that surround the business of DLC. In Valkyria Chronicles II, Selvaria becomes a free DLC character. What better DLC? Even if it doesn’t make any sense story-wise, since she died long before VCII even started (but hey, who cares as long as she as boobs and that we love her?). One year later and a few weeks after the release of Valkyria Chronicles III in Japan, Selvaria appears again in a DLC pack including the character and a few extra missions for… 600¥! Price that I paid without complaining, but still a lot higher than the 0€ of Valkyria Chronicles II. Thus you have a clear difference between the Selvaria of VC1 who came later to respond to the expectations of the fans, the Selvaria of VC2 given free to reward the fans’ fidelity, and the Selvaria of VCIII purposely scheduled to raise the margin. Again, I’m not saying some of those are bad or anything, but that there are different approaches and that prejudice is wrong. In some cases, DLC are advantageous : remember Wipeout HD, this great episode of the late futuristic racer from Studio Liverpool. Instead of releasing a sequel for full price, Sony decided to offer a big DLC roughly of the same size of the base game for half price. On the other hand, how can we admit that FIFA games release every year for 70€ with so little change, like the press, very oblivious of the interest of their readers, seem to endorse? Better physics, they say. Enhanced AI, they argue. I’m sorry nut all this is merely a game update. When Call of Duty and Battlefield tweak bullet physics, kick or scope-in time, it called update 1 point something and not the next COD or the next Battlefield. 

You will probably say «ok, but those DLCs, they just have to include them in the base game!». Here we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, is the game satisfying without the DLC? Let’s take Deus Ex Human Revolution : even deprived of its extension The Missing Link, it is already a major WPRG and a masterpiece of science fiction which is more than worth the 60€ asked for it at release. Tales of Xillia is no less good without the flurry of DLC costumes that come with it, and which are hardly important to enjoy the game in general. On the other hand, do Nintendo games (which seldom have paid DLC) stand the comparison with the base games of the competition, often richer and more ambitious?

After that, you have to wonder wether the DLC makes sense in the original game. I heard complains about Drakengard 3 DLC. Those are short stories in which you play as Zero’s sister, who are your opponents in the main story. It’s not incoherent to have them separated from the main game. Sure they could wait and put it all together but games have to be released at some point. You just can’t always ask for more, because developers can’t develop for eternity. In this case, SquareEnix had to release Drakengard 3 for the holidays, it was imperative to target the shopping season and the DLCs could not be ready at that time. Same goes for the DLCs of Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, their development started well after. But you also have some questionable situations. I remember that Ubisoft had removed two chapters in the middle of the story to sell them later as DLC. Whatever you can think about it, it is not normal to go from chapter 11 to chapter 13 while you are playing the game at release. In the same logic, Wilbell shouldn’t be a DLC character in Atelier Escha&Logy. Very important playable character in Atelier Ayesha, she had been teased heavily just before the game hit the shelves. I was out of my mind when I discovered I had to wait one entire month and pay 500 yens. Let’s also mention Final Fantasy XIII-2 o Prince of Persia : why should I pay to know the true end of the story?

In terms of DLC, it’s clear that not everything is acceptable. But buying is not necessarily accepting. I can buy some DLC an end up underwhelmed so I won’t buy the sequel or complain to the publisher on facebook/twitter… which ultimately can lead to a change of philosophy (I notice that Lightning Returns has a lot less DLCs than FFXIII-2, and no important one). Anyway, it is stupid to demonize DLC, question their economic relevancy and deny the happiness they brings to so many people around the world. 

Review – Drakengard 3

spider

The story goes straight to the point : Zero, one of the singing maidens supposed to bring peace and prosperity, wants to kill. No one knows why, but she’s firmly decided to decimate all her sisters in the most brutal possible manner. She will be helped by her faithful Dragon Mikael in her wicked plan.

I don’t know why, before starting Drakengard 3 I was convinced that it would be an open-world RPG. I quickly realized it was the contrary : most of the stages go straight without junctions, although with treasure chests here and there to make the player search a little. Most of the job is to slay the armies of monsters and bosses that get in your way by chaining combos and dodging in style, all of this in real time. Yes, I just described a BTA. Because Drakengard 3 is much closer to a BTA than a JRPG or even an A-RPG like Kingdom Hearts given that no menu ever show up in battle. That said, it keeps a few elements of that lineage, mainly weapon customization and experience points. Those are still very important, because the difficulty increases gradually during the main story but very quickly in the postgame chapters. You will then have to grind in previous chapters so as to keep up with the adversity. In parallel, it will be crucial to improve your weapons because top gear is required too.

So if you take it as a BTA, Drakengard 3 ends up fairly good : the gameplay which relies on weapon-switching is pretty hooking, enemies are tough but the difficulty is very progressive as I already said. It’s actually up to you to establish your own attack strategy by choosing the weapon you see fit depending on the situation. You have the choice between 4 types of weapons : spears, swords, gauntlets and chakrams. Like in all good BTAs, you’ll have to carefully analyze the enemies’ moves if you want to survive, and it’s quite fast-paced too. Many sequences will have you ride the dragon. Those ones are far from gimmicky as there’s a whole gameplay behind it. I can fly and keep onto the ground, in both cases the dragon’s attacks vary. Surprisingly, when flying you have to manage your altitude with X. Every boss fight is done on the dragon’s back and each one involve a new strategy. You also have a bunch of sidequests that are actually mini-challenges that put you against the clock. Others consist in some series of colosseum fights in which you’ll need serious knowledge of the bestiary.

The general atmosphere of the game is terrific : chapter 0 begins very intensely and the game in general gives adrenaline rushes. Zero and Mikael are constantly making fun of each other, despite the massacre they do. It’s purely funny, there is nothing serious in the story. It looks like some long-running manzai in which Zero keeps complaining about everything and everyone while the others make fun of her. Drakengard 3 is equally efficient as an action game than as a comedy. It’s still extremely violent, as limbs fly and Zero is drenched in blood. It’s precisely after a sea of blood that she can unleash her fury.

Drakengard 3 has unfortunately two sad drawbacks, that are its technical and sound performance. Level-design is ultra poor the characters’ 3D models reminds you of 10 years ago. I almost wondered whether the Access Games re-used the 3D engine of Drakengard 2. I could understand if it was one of the first PS3 games, but it’s kinda one of the last… and the framerate sinks horribly on quite some occasions. The OST is good, no doubt. But you actually enjoy it more or less only outside battle because there is zero emphasis during the game in itself.

A quick word on DLC : those invite you to play as Zero’s sisters during one chapter focused on their own story/personality (there’s also one on Zero for some reason). There are not very important in regard of the story in general, and the gameplay is the same as Zero’s most of the time (only Three has the exclusivity of her scissors and associated skills). However, Two’s chapter felt a little more interesting and emotional than the others. Whether you buy these or not depends on your liking of the various characters or if you just can’t get enough of the game’s bizarre direction. Let’s stress that there are quite a few trophies to be earned here.

Although it’s nothing like a Ninja Gaiden or a Bayonetta, Drakengard 3 is a very good third way to enjoy an action game. The irresistible personality that springs from it makes it a fine choice for Japanese games fans. 

Review – Project Diva f (PS3 DLC)

While the PS3 version called «F» has just been released in Japan, the PSVita version called «f» gets a new DLC including everything that has been added to the PS3 Project Diva. It’s called おおもじパック (or «capital letter pack»), has got 6 new songs, 13 additional outfits, 4 AR live and a bunch of accessories, all this for 3000¥.

Tell Your World

Pretty classic song in the long history of emotional compositions, but very well supported by a good rhythm and a charming clip. The «linkage» costume for Miku (which comes from the subject of the song, connectivity) is nice as well.

Verdict : Good

Sweet Devil

This track tells the whims of a frivolous woman. Rather well written and musically entertaining, it unfortunately suffers from a weird clip that totally misses the point of the lyrics.

Verdict : Meh

Tokyo Teddy Bear

Splendid message that echoes a diseased society which no longer cares for its children. It tells the uneasiness a young girl (or a boy, for that matters…) who, unloved by her family decides to self-mutilate. The variations in rhythm and the uncompromising clip fully translates this beautiful lament.

Verdict : Masterpiece

夢喰い白黒バク (yumekui shirokuro baku)

Strange tale about a trickster who manipulates dreams. The (baku) originally is a legendary animal that eats dreams, but here it is presented as magician to fit with the game. The trickster is asked from a young lady to free her from a nightmare, which he does. He then provides her some torrid dreams before eating everyone she has, leaving her a boring monochrome world. The Victorian style of the clip is well adapted to this song.

Verdict : Excellent

リンちゃんなう!(Rin-chan now)

Poor excuse for a music. The goofy clip doesn’t really help this apocalyptic chain of repetitive sounds. It is even terrible to play since it lacks any form of rhythm. The only positive thing about it is that the adult Rin module comes with it.

Verdict : noise

千本桜 (Senbonzakura)

The lyrics of this song are extremely difficult, making it tricky to interpret. The clip seem to refer to the period just before WWII, so we could imagine it as an anti-war protest. But it could actually be a tribute the Japanese culture (materialized by the cherry-blossom) as opposed to the growing western influence in the beginning of the 20th century. In any case, it’s a truly moving song, with tailored clip & costumes. This music is the pinnacle of this DLC and by itself is worth the mere 3000 yens.

Verdict : Great masterpiece

Given the tremendous quality of this DLC, it’s safe to say it’s worth several times the cost. Consequently, the full PS3 game is a golden opportunity as it becomes the most complete and intense Project Diva game to date. Good timing, Sega is currently thinking about delivering it to you.

Kasumi, the WiiU exclusivity that goes too far

In this week’s Nintendo direct, Yosuke Hayashi, big boss of Team Ninja, has announced a further free character for the WiiU version of Ninja Gaiden 3 (NG3), called Razor’s Edge. It’s Kasumi, central character of the Dead or Alive series. Fans have always dreamed of seeing her arrive in the series : she’s a Kunoichi too after all.

Good news? Hell no! Because PS3/360 owners (i.e. the majority of the fans) are once again left behind. This rushed announcement (Kasumi will be downloadable next year) outlines the hypocrisy and the corruption that surrounds Razor’s Edge. Momiji, so far exclusive to the PS3 version of Ninja Gaiden 2, had been also announced for free during the launch window of the WiiU in the US. Razor’s Edge not having accomplished stellar sales statewise, Nintendo wanted another trump card to increase the pressure when blackmailing the Ninja Gaiden fans. In other words, Kasumi is taken hostage by Nintendo to force current PS3/360 owners to buy a WiiU, and it was Tecmo who sold her to them.

Let’s remember that WE PS3/360 players have made what Ninja Gaiden is today as a series. Does Tecmo, who delivered us a poor first version of Ninja Gaiden 3 in March, have the right to allocate such exclusivity to Nintendo fanboys who are obviously ignoring the quality of this awesome beat them’ all? Why in the world should we be forced to invest 400€ in a system bound to fail just to play 1 or 2 games that should have gone to us first? Nintendo crossed the line this time. In their constant buying out of exclusives here and there, they look down to us with their casual dollars. Those TecmoKoei backstabbers are no better, since they accepted such shady deal without thinking about their fans first.

Like this was not cynical enough, they offer us to buy Ninja Gaiden Σ2+ on PSVita. Why in the hell aren’t they including Kasumi to boost the attractiveness of this remake? They does send some positive messages between the lines, like when Hayashi-san told Siliconera that they were thinking about a way «to make Ninja Gaiden fans happy on all systems», or this mysterious Ninja Gaiden Σ3 that discreetly appeared on amazon for PS3 and 360.

My friends, let’s not be fooled by the sweet talk. What we want is an OFFICIAL announcement, to show fans that they have a minimum consideration for them. Until then, don’t hesitate to express your displeasure at such contempt on twitter and facebook. Tell them you will NOT buy WiiU, or any of their upcoming Vita games (Dead or Alive 5+ is also in the works) unless they set things straight! Be merciless, in the following weeks, their social networks have to look like THAT :

Does the crisis affect the video games market?

Notice : this article is a translation from the French version of this blog, references may be in French or based on French figures.

For several months now, I’ve been reading articles reporting sluggish sales in the video games market, which would be reason enough to call it a crisis. Those so-called journalists never stop short of writing bullshit when it comes to selling their papers. They really should analyze the figures before commmenting.

Les Echos, a French economic newspaper, goes wild when home console sales in France are down 20% year on year in 2012 (software sales are down 10%). But what Les Echos fails to mention is that Nintendo alone bears most of the decline. From the data I took from Vgchartz, we can see that yoy PS3 is down by only 11%, X360 falls 23% and Wii plummet by 48%. PS3 software sales are flat +1%, X360 software grows by 3% and Wii games sales collapses by 38%. So the overall decline is nothing more than the burst of the casual bubble that allowed rapid growth in 2007 (Gamasutra says +41%) and in 2008 (+23%). During the PS2 era, home console sold slightly over 200 million units. In this generation, which won’t be over before 2014 at best, we already have a 230-million install base. We can’t say the same for every economic segment : car manufacturers are cutting jobs despite public bailouts and consumer electronics declines 5-10% in one quarter. Not to mention the press, which loses every year so many advertisers and readers that many papers go bust. In short, it’s the folks who have to survive on rutabagas that write that kind of nonsense. I can understand their frustration, but they really should mind their own business rather than spelling doom on others. The Wii-collapse is the rightful punishment of Nintendo’s short-term policy that consists only in luring gullible but volatile casual gamers, while the hardcore gamer segment of the industry still flourish despite the lesser number of releases. Furthermore, reports show that accessory sales are up 23%, mainly thanks to Kinect and Move. Direct extension of PS3 and X360 hardware, those ones cannot be left out of the market as a whole. Finally, it’s interesting to notice that the Japanese market grew in 2011, after several years of decline.

Handhelds are also down in France (-14%), the responsibility lying in PSVita this time because it doesn’t offset the decline in PSP sales. 3DS makes up for the free-fall in DS sales, but cannot alone bear the weight of a decaying segment that is no longer fit for today’s commuters. Smartphones are cannibalizing the market at an astonishing pace : they have now 57% market share in the US, while DS and PSP had 80% only two years before. Even in Japan, where handhelds rule, smartphone software sales are up 200%. In France, 14 million people play on their mobile devices as far as this year, and 35% of them purchased a game. In fact, no need for figures to understand that : just ride any metro line with a PSVita in your hands, and you will find yourself alone in the middle of people playing freecell or Angrybirds. But why do we oppose smartphones and handhelds when talking sales volumes, and compare when considering market share? Isn’t a 2D mario comparable to Fruit Ninja? It’s now common among pulishers to develop Iphone versions of their biggest Ips (ex. SquareEnix and Final Fantasy) even if it means delaying traditional home console projects (ex. SquareEnix and Final Fantasy). Smartphones and handhelds belong to the same market in which casual gamers migrate to smartphones. In the end, the mobile market keeps growing.

The whole panic around the decline of boxed games sales is also hilarious. Many actors within the industry are worried, but it’s just because they don’t know how the digital transition goes. There is no proper tracking of digital games sales, even NPD said they would eventually look into the matter. Some figures can nevertheless be found here and there : OVUM, a market research firm, estimates at 17% the annual growth for non-physical games. Steam reported 100% growth in 2011, the general percentage of digital games sold has shot up 50%, not to mention the Iphone boom I was talking about above. DLC should also be taken into account, since it’s not charity. PSN was already growing by 40% in 2010, and no doubt download-only games like Journey or Limbo do help maintain that momentum. Of course, manufacturers are aware of this. Sony didn’t design PSVita at random : most of the recent PSP games like Shining Blade, Final Fantasy Type-0 or the upcoming Sol Trigger are compatible and playable on Vita. Rather than having to carry their old PSP, Japanese Vita owners are more comfortable using Sony’s cloud and cramming all their games into the new system.

Calling those figures a crisis is exaggerated : far from a downturn, the current situation of the gaming market reflects the high mobility of the mainstream public and the rise of new distribution channels and increasingly varied forms of gaming. Generally speaking, it just illustrates that capitalism is a constant renewal, as it’s been in our economies for the past six decades.