Capcom is Dead

July 14, 2013 marked the release of the most anticipated Mega Man since the 2010 release of Mega Man 10. There’s just one problem; the game, MegaMan Unlimited, is a fan project wholly unaffiliated with Capcom. The link to the Mega Man Unlimited developer’s page is here.

I played through this fan project and wrote a companion review on it. MegaMan Unlimited is pretty good, but it’s release marks the exact reason a developer should never allow a fan project to be made; it’s surrendering your legal property.

The fact that Capcom allowed MegaMan Unlimited to continue in relatively public development over a five year period and then actually be completed and released shows weakness. This is literally the largest franchise management blunder I’ve ever seen, and it’s indicative of just how poorly managed Capcom is right now. This project, and it’s development, have dominated Google searches on the Mega Man franchise over the past three years at least.  Either they didn’t know it was being done, or alternatively, they could have given consent to the developers (note there is some indication Capcom is aware of other fan projects and is allowing those ones to continue, but I’m not sure that is the case with this particular game).

In addition to seeing all these unaffiliated posts dominating Google searches, I learned on July 14th because I received an email alerting me to a YouTube ScrewAttack review. When the mainstream press is giving credit to these projects, it’s a bad sign for for the actual copyright owners.

Playable fan projects, although they can produce fun content, are pretty obvious copyright infringements, despite a screen stating that the developer doesn’t own the copyright. If you’re making a sequel to a game using content you don’t own, that’s as core an infringement as possible; you’re literally trying to give people the same experience as the original when you don’t own the content. When consumers can’t tell the difference, you’re in trouble. There’s no chance it could be fair use in this instance (fair use coming into play in the event of a critical blog post perhaps…). Generally, a responsive company will shut these projects down as soon as the legal department finds out.  A quick Google search will show that Square Enix has repeatedly quashed Chrono Trigger fan projects over the past 10 years.

The reason I mention Chrono Trigger is that I see a parallel here between that franchise and Capcom’s handling of the Mega Man franchise. Namely, that fan projects might just be a response to the lack of supply from the owners of the copyrights. Not that there is any legal principle to validate this, but it certainly offers an explanation as to why fans keep trying to add more content. But in both instances there is an acknowledgement that there is a good project from consumers, and their need for more of it isn’t being met. I think Square Enix has the better response to the attempts by others to co-opt their rights though.

In the past three years, a highly-recognizable game franchise that has endured for over 25 years has seen no major releases and only high-profile cancellations. This includes a new installation in the Mega Man Legends franchise (which was also abandoned over the entire run of the PS2 era), Mega Man Online (a Korean MMORPG) and the cancellation of Mega Man Universe (which was a 2010 E3 debut). These failures are in part also compounded by the very public departure of the man credited with creating the franchise, Keiji Inafune. The only other major news regarding Mega Man from Capcom has been it’s release of footage of another cancelled game that the press didn’t know about, which for some reason they thought would help celebrate the Mega Man franchises’ 25th anniversary. Other bloggers have picked up that Capcom seems to be content abandoning its other storied franchises.

The ironic point is that the middle-ground between endlessly unmet demand by players for more content, but not necessarily more revenue, can be met by offering a level builder where players can design their scenarios using sanctioned tools. This lets the community develop content in a controlled environment, one subject to a end-user license agreement. Modding is always big with PC games, and it has extended into the console platforming arena with Sony’s Little Big Planet. This is exactly the project that Mega Man Universe was supposed to be though. Capcom lost its chance at crowdsourcing a renaissance here.

Lack of strong brand management and consistent development hurts the bottom line.  If fan projects that aren’t sanctioned, or are sanctioned but aren’t controlled by the developers are dominating this franchise, it effectively means the future of Mega Man itself is cancelled.  Capcom’s business model has been to go from money off bad sequels to making no money off sequels it has no control over. Without the strength of its strongest copyrights to rely on, Capcom might as well be dead.

Advertisements

MegaMan Unlimited – Attack of the Clones

Megaman UnlimitedThis post is related to another one I’m writing on what this fan project means for Capcom. I HOPE to finish both around the same time, but bear with me in the event I don’t. Notwithstanding all the issues that come along with a fan made game, namely that they typically will be subject to take down notices for copyright infringement, MegaMan Unlimited is very good.

From what I’ve been picking up from the website of the creator, and random Google searches over the last few years, this was a 5 year project that came from the mind of one guy, who with the help of a group of programmers working for free made a classic Mega Man sequel. It does not appear to be sanctioned by Capcom, and I’m utterly confounded as to how it wasn’t blocked from release through the use of legal action. This game is free to download and has been reviewed by Screw Attack, Geek Insider, Destructoid, and others. It’s as legit a fan project as could be made. If you want like these old NES games and want a fun, challenging experience, download this before it’s taken off the net.

Design

The level design, menu layout, cut scenes, and character design are surprisingly on point with the classic NES feel the game is trying to ape. Backgrounds and menus are generally colorful and animated. Primary colors that pop with bright animations are standard. In sum, it’s fun to look at, as it should be. There is even a hidden bonus stage that definitely ups the challenge even more.

Boss Selection with Bright Colors

Boss Selection with Bright Colors

Some flaws are present though. A careful eye will pick up that certain designs are not as expertly polished. One is the use of a “blurring” effect for certain boss animations that I certainly can’t remember from any Mega Man games on NES. The idea is that the original animation frames didn’t look good for slower, so a blurred frame which merges the animations together between the two was introduced. A sneaky and creative workaround, but also not standard. Capcom would have probably just figured out a way to do it with two frames correctly.

Some of the cut scenes and post-level weapon screens also have  some expressions on character faces that don’t seem to be consistent with other games either. Capcom wrote itself into a wall with the original franchise. The games had deliberately campy stories, and enemies were menacing and goofy in a style that only anime can be used to convey. So it was difficult to have things like character development, or to treat the games as anything other than episodic. This manifestation tries to add a hard core edge to the series that was never there, and in fact seemed to be intentionally designated for the X-series of games.

Music is also another story.  Most of the tracks fail to stand out, and a few are just annoying.  It’s not easy composing with such a limited number of tools, and the music has the feel of a classic NES game, it just doesn’t give a high level of energy into the endeavor.

Opening Cut Scene

Opening Cut Scene

But overall, it’s an A- clone that could easily pass as a real Mega Man sequel.

Gameplay

The gameplay is supposed to be intentionally derivative here.  It’s in the mold of a the classic Mega Man 3 format, the inability to charge up, but the preservation of the slide. Without an explicit NES emulator, the program works exactly in terms of timing and character abilities as a traditional Mega Man game.  Controls are crisp, although I’d recommend the use of a controller for ergonomics over a keyboard. Keeping the original specs as far as movement is an important element, but another is the supporting cast of characters, which are carefully designed to not be do overs of other Mega Man characters, but are totally new to fit the new stage themes.

And the new stage themes all feature some unique feature that mixes up the game play.  The Rainbow Man stage features the instant-kill beams from Mega Man 2’s Quick Man stage, but couples this with little geometry puzzles.  The Jet Man stage introduces movable treadmill platforms.  Glue Man’s stage features sticky surfaces that restrict mobility. These concepts are also combined with some recycling though, such as the use of the outer-space gravity jump originally seen in Mega Man 5 (which is really the same as the underwater jump if you think about it), and the reverse-gravity flip (again seen in Mega Man 5 initially).

What you’ll read in the other reviews is that Unlimited is quite difficult. It is, and at times it seems unfair. It’s fair to say it is harder than any of the actual original games on NES. That being said, the level design is deliberately challenging, but not impossible. Most of this doesn’t have to do with individual traps, but rather the number of traps. The stages tend to be about 30-50% longer than in the original games. Although that doesn’t seem like that much, it’s just enough to set it apart from the originals.

Another notable change is the timing needed. Tolerances are a little tighter here, and when you need to slide, the game makes sure you know it. Generally you’ll need to be a little quicker than some of the original games. With that being said, the slide was never that well integrated into the actual Mega Man games it was initially featured in. It just seemed like something that was thrown in. Here it is expressly needed in certain circumstances though, namely in boss fights.

One point I’d like to make though is that the difficulty is well-managed and very deliberate. Although there are traps that seem a little sadistic at first, there is always a correct way to get around an obstacle, and possibly a few with the use of special weapons. This isn’t the case where it wasn’t tested or was just thrown together. It was engineered. The special weapons range from rather limited in use, to very powerful, including one that gives both mobility and invincibility (which is definitely not standard). Part of the brutal difficulty is also mitigated by allowing carryover of lives and E-Tanks by allowing access to a shop.

Conclusion

Ultimately, as I explain in the companion post, Capcom should not have allowed this game to be made and distributed. It will be taken down at some point. Still, it’s interesting to see what a group of motivated fans with programming skills can do these days. It’s 95% as good as the real thing. In the meantime, if you have a cheap Logitech gamepad for PC and an interest in dusting off your rusty thumbs and testing your Mega-ing skills, download Mega Man Unlimited before it’s too late.

Civ 5: Brave New World

Brave New World Title

It’s a brave new world (but not for the Civilization franchise)!

Civ has always interested me because it’s such an anomaly.  I can’t think of any other series of games that is utterly disinterested in trying to do what everyone else is .  It’s refreshing in some ways, and maddeningly frustrating in others.  Civ V,and it’s recent expansion pack, Brave New World, continue the franchise’s weird Galapagos-esque evolution.  Although Civ V seems to be the best Civ yet, it also carries a legacy of problems along with it that aren’t addressed and haven’t been for over a decade.  That being said, a review of Civ V could easily double as a review of Civ 4 or Civ 3.  Strong points are consistently challenging and nuanced gameplay.

Graphics/Presentation

Civ V generally looks pretty good.  It also definitely doesn’t look great.  I would say the world map looks essentially the same as in Civilization 4, but unit animations have been cleaned up.  This is especially noticeable in combat.  The actual city centers feature all the buildings constructed, and on the borders wonders and other improvements.  Unfortunately, the rest of the map looks bare.  Without towns, or suburbs, the maps frequently look like the Midwest.  Maybe there needs to be a mall or subdivision improvement available in the modern era to fill in some of that farmland.

Some other fit and finish isn’t there.  Loading the game initially seems to take forever, and the load screen features a static picture, whereas in most games a slideshoe of several stock photos would be rotated in and out.  Fonts and menus are themed in an Art Deco type font that just seems out of place.  This isn’t BioShock and the styling choice doesn’t make any sense in the context.  Menus and option screens are often filled with an incoherent layout.  In some instances, such as conducting World Congress votes or founding a religion I was confused as to what I needed to do to select an option.  Menu location itself is somewhat haphazard.

The music isn’t bad, but is consistently underwhelming.  The one exception here is the title screen which gives some gravity to the game.  Because the pace of a Civ match is so plodding, it would really be a good idea for Firaxis to invest in some composition to increase the tempo.

The interaction with other civilization leaders has always been fun, and it still is in Civ 5, where the animated cultural avatars speak their native language and act with passion.  It functions largely the same as in Civ III or Civ IV.

Gameplay

What’s missing in Civ V is a lack of true innovation; the game suffers from exactly the same limitations as all of its prior installments.

Most critically, in order to make this game better, the turn-based system needs to be discarded in favor of something more responsive.  It’s made the franchise unwieldy and just isn’t defensible anymore.  Even under the fastest game settings, a single match takes 4 or 5 hours to complete.  It simply doesn’t work as something accessible to most players.  Turns move quickly at the start of the game due to the fact that most of the players don’t have much that can be done.  But the amount of decisions and actions that need to be made later in the game quickly becomes overwhelming.  Wars take a huge time investment because each unit needs to be moved one by one, and both sides need to move their units during their own specific turns.  This is also coupled with the fact that the computer will frequently gang up on you if you’re military is seen as weak.  The amount of time it takes to play spirals out of control, even on the accelerated settings.

The turns don’t even make sense.  It takes 50 years for a worker to walk 10 miles east of a city?  Another 50 years to build a farm?  A good fix might be to make the maps twice as big and let the worker move twice.  When at war, the middling pace of the game, and moving each soldier one tile at a time to advance in a line is excruciating.

I have never been into hardcore multiplayer games, but from experience, most matches take 20-40 minutes to play.  It’s such a massive deviation from the norm here, and it’s the same with Civ III and IV.  Civ 5 is too time consuming as a single player game, nevermind multiplayer.  I’m apparently not alone in being intimidated by an extended match online.  Note how the Steam post also mentions that there are not really any significant numbers of public matches at any given time.  If online is the future, not achieving a baseline critical mass means failure.

Other features of Civ V seem arbitrary.  The costs of connecting cities with roads is prohibitively expensive now.  That seems counter intuitive.  The game also for some reason doesn’t feature any type of upgrade for paving or constructing highways, which makes modern era cities look out of place when connected to each other with dirt roads.  The tech tree itself seems more nonsensical than ever.

The “happiness” metric is also problematic.  Happiness is necessary to generate a “golden age,” and also any sort of growth in major cities.  That seems fair, but what isn’t is the inability of the player to really do much to change this function.  Conceptually, the happiness measurement makes sense.  Cities which have been conquered and are being ruled by a foreign occupier would naturally be generating unhappiness.  That’s fine, although maybe after having Carthage Novo as part of my empire for 1500 some of those people protesting the occupation would have died.   My problem with the system is that occupying cities isn’t the source of most of the unhappiness that’s typically generated.  Most of the happiness in most civilizations seems to come from either large populations in cities, or unhappiness from the NUMBER of cities.  I can understand the first part, I am at a complete lost for the second.  High population means congestion, higher costs, traffic.  Ok, I get that those could be negative factors.  But I’ve never once thought to myself, “you know, this sure would be a much better country if we had less cities.”  There isn’t much that can be done to increase happiness either, as computer opponents are reluctant to trade luxury resources in almost any circumstance, and buildings that generate happiness never seem to generate enough.

Bright spots include the cultural and religious features.  Both of these are greatly modified from the based game in expansions (in the case of religion, it wasn’t in the base Civ V from what I understand).  The importance of these stats really is what separates Civ from an average empire building or RTS war game.  Given the time commitment it takes to even execute and plan for a war in Civ V make playing for other types of victories especially appealing.

Brave New World

I was only able to play Civ V, bundled with the first expansion, Gods and Kings, for about two weeks before I upgraded to Brave New World.  Brave New World introduces some new major concepts like a World Congress and trade routes.  These innovations expand and refine other aspects in the game, but primarily Brave New World feels like a patch.  I would say a pretty good patch though.  In particular, the expansion puts an emphasis is on economic development, which previously didn’t seem that significant.  The result is that it is much easier to accumulate enough gold to actually spend it on things.  It also adds flexibility to centralizing production or opening up trade with foreign civilizations or city states.  The trade route system implemented is relatively easy to understand and can add a good deal of options to expanding influence, either through trade or the spread of religion.

Final Thoughts

What Civ V has going for it is that it is strangely addictive, and has a punishing learning curve.  Even though you have plenty of time to make decisions, it doesn’t make Civ any easier.  I just wish I could get more out of the incredible amount of play time being invested.

I remember before Fallout 3 was released reading a lot of press about how Bethesda didn’t see any way to do a turn-based game, but still wanted to preserve the strategic aspects of the original series.  Some stinging comments from readers were dropped below those columns.  Die hard Fallout fans were pissed.  And, Fallout 3 is sort of a weird mix of strategy and skill that is pretty unusual for an FPS.  But it doesn’t feel like work to play Fallout 3.   It would not work if you had to wait 20 minutes during a firefight for a bunch of super mutants to all take their turns.

Granted, I understand the hesitancy to move to real time.  The risk is that Civilization, which is a game about expanding one culture globally through careful management with other societies would turn into Warcraft.  I can get why that is a bad thing.  But going RTS is the only thing that will make Civ manageable.

PS4 Poised to Win Next Round of Console Wars and Open a New Chapter in DRM

The Console Wars: Lessons to Be Learned

To answer the rhetorical question presented: YES.

Sony Likely To Gain Key Edge At Launch

Sony Likely To Gain Key Edge At Launch

It’s hard to say slashing prices is a brilliant marketing strategy (it’s actually the most generic business strat), but Sony just did the single best thing it could have done to get a huge head start on Microsoft later this year at launch.  Cutting ahead of Microsoft decisively on prices is exactly the right business decision for three key reasons:

1. Longer Console Life Cycles Support Up Front Investment in Customer Penetration

Even if Sony is offering significant subsidies to consumers by dumping consoles at below cost, the long term benefits of doing so clearly outweigh the $100 per unit cost difference.  Subsidizing customers is exactly what let AT&T pull ahead of U.S. mobile carriers at the launch of the iPhone.  The big difference between wireless providers and console makers is time.

The PS3 remained relevant in the information age for a full seven years.  The system predates touch screen smart phones, Instagram, and almost Facebook.  Back in 2006 HDTV hadn’t fully been integrated by the masses.  There is virtually no chance that you have any other electronics in your home that are as old as the PS3.  Up front subsidy costs to customers start to look a lot smaller when they’re amortized over 7 years versus two or three in the case of a cell phone.  Just imagine if AT&T was able to hold onto those early adopters for an additional 5 years?

Granted, consoles are unlike wireless carrier contracts.  Console buyers  are not contractually bound for two years at the risk of penalty and might reasonably choose to have both an XBox One and PS4 at home (who has two cell phones these days, drug dealers???).  But the financial hit for Sony is minimized now that online gaming is going to be tied to a PS Plus subscription model.  In this sense, Sony is really following Microsoft which pioneered the concept of charging for multiplayer online features.  The $100 discount to an XBox 360 versus a PS3 would clearly pay for itself in less than a year of a $10 per month subscription.  The downside just isn’t there in trying to compete with Microsoft on price if most of that can be recovered in royalties and subscription fees.

2. High Prices Didn’t Work

Sony has learned it’s lesson, system price is a significant impediment to customer adoption for a console.  This article reports that it took seven years to surpass the XBox 360 in total unit sales.  The 77 million PS3 sales are roughly half the total number of PS2 units sold globally.  Buying an  80gb PS3, an extra controller, and two games set me back a mortgage payment in December 2007.  That kind of staggering cost made me feel a little proud to lay down, but also was the big reason I had to wait a full year after the initial launch.  If anything is clear, early market share and customer adoption are keys to long term customer adoption, and also software product development attention.  Although both consoles have been reporting that they have exclusive titles lined up, an astute gamer knows that a significant number of major titles are offered on both systems.  I don’t see any foreseeable blowback from the argument that the PS4 will be perceived as inferior either, especially since both major rivals are being launched at about the same time.

3. The Revenue Pie Likely Won’t Be Smaller At Launch

One key factor that will differentiate a PS4 and XBox One buyer at launch day will be the extra $100 the PS4 user has in their pocket.  Customers aware of that savings are prone to dump it into an additional controller or extra game.  Either way, the money ends up on Sony’s side of the fence (either directly or through a game developer).  Greasing the palms of developers at launch in 2013 with double the number of launch game sales is the only way to ensure long term continued support from major designers faced with exploding budgets.

A Win for Users on DRM

More importantly than which gaming system will sell is what the next round of the Console Wars, Sony has made a huge 180 degree pivot in terms of customer DRM.  After nearly a decade of increasingly tightening standards on what consumers can and can’t do with their own property, Sony has finally said enough is enough.  We’ve been at a point for a long time where content providers can, from a technical standpoint, significantly curtail not just piracy, but also sharing arrangements.  Such contractual limitations have been unanimously been upheld as legal restraints on consumer rights.  Consequently, the doctrine of first sale, and the days of sharing a game with a classmate are ready to be thrown out the window.

Microsoft shot first here; indicating that it wanted to limit the used game market, either through restricting borrowing costs or selling unlock codes to used game buyers.  Sony could have completely killed sharing as well.  If both companies adopted this practice the used game market would be as good as dead overnight.

I initially heard an audio version of the NPR article noted above on the way into work this morning.  The broadcaster indicated that the crowd met Sony’s announcement that it was supporting used games with PS4 with applause.  No doubt Gamestop shareholders met the announcement with signs of relief.

This is a significant step not just for consumers, but for Sony as well.  First, it recognizes the growing evidence that sharing, or even flat out piracy, might actually help sales by allowing for greater product awareness.  In a world with games where the big titles have always been driven by sequels (Mario Bros. 3, CoD 3, Rock Band 3, Gran Turismo 5, Grand Theft Auto 5), maybe letting some more people play some old games will have a benefit on driving larger market participation.  I’m almost 30 and I don’t buy used games anymore, but I definitely know that borrowing Assassin’s Creed from my friend was the main reason I bought Assassin’s Creed II.  Sony’s decision here might actually make business sense, as opposed to appearing merely merciful.

The second big benefit is that it makes Sony look like the good guy.  Sony suddenly becomes less like Big Brother and more like, well, maybe a big brother.  It’s not that technology providers can’t lock this stuff up, either legally or technically, it’s an issue of whether they should.  Ultimately, the market should be making the determination as to what features game suppliers should be adding.  Sony gives that decision back to the masses.  Ultimately they will be the ones to decide whether used games are a feature worth paying for (or saving $100 for).  If only our American companies could get on board with the examples of freedom being set by a Japanese company…

Top 5 “Needs Improvement” Areas for GTA

As details are being slowly released to the public, we’re seeing a lot of the GTA that we’ve come to know and love since Vice City.  These include neurotic  characters, Hollywood-caliber action stunts, and the poppiest of pop music samples.  But this is only half the story of GTA.  On top of all the glitz and glamour is a game with some consistently poor controls and messy design layout. Here’re my thoughts on what needs to be fixed to make this great franchise even greater.

1. Replay Value

There is always a tension between the free-form aspects a sandbox world presents to a player and the structured, mission-oriented approach.  The GTA series since Vice City has understood that it needs to provide high-quality cut scenes and story in order to effectively compete with other media.  The problem with over-engineering the story is that it homogenizes the player’s experiences.  Fundamentally, this is what a sandbox game ISN’T supposed to offer a player; a homogeneous experience.  The more it’s like a movie, the less it’s like a game.  By having one story so central to so much of the game, GTA4 felt done once Niko Bellic’s story was resolved.  All the other neat things to do in Liberty City then felt pointless.  GTA needs to represent both a quality experience and player freedom.

Part of this has to do with the removal in GTA4 of some of the goofy and game-like aspects.  These included ditching large brightly colored neon icons for items for something a lot more subtle.  But little touches like stealing an ambulance to make deliveries from the hospital were taken out.  GTA4 made normal social interaction a bigger deal, as opposed to being some sort of crazy fantasy.  Taking some of these objectives out made the sand box part of the game feel hollow.

Three Protagonists = Three Stories

Three Protagonists = Three Stories

Fortunately, this area of weakness seems to be something GTA 5 has locked down.  From what I’ve been reading, the emphasis on three characters, and the fact that time is passing for all three regardless of whether the player is controlling them or not, is probably a huge step forward in solving this dilemma.  If only 1/3 of the story is being viewed by the player at a time, then logically there are two other stories and missions running around at the same time, meaning that a full three runs will be necessary to wrap everything up.  This should hopefully go a long way in improving replay value.

2. Inventory System

One glaring hole in the the GTA franchise is the lack of any sort of inventory system.  Part of this seems to be some sort of hatred of menus or minimalist philosophy on the part of Rockstar.  But on PS3, the fact that weapons and ammo can’t be bought separately seems kind of pathetic.

The famously inconvenient weapon selection process is parodied here in some sort of horrible resolution.  Some improvements have been made over the years, like eliminating the ability to carry 20 different weapons around at a time.  But there needs to be some sort of faster weapon selection process.

Another huge problem is the lack of storage.  If I have 10 RPGs, I want to hang on to them.  I don’t want to carry around everything I have on me like some sort of hobo-mafioso.  It would make SO much sense to be able to take additional weapons and drop them off at a safehouse.  Likewise, maybe my safehouse should have some body armor in the closet, as opposed to a bunch of sets of nonfunctional clothes.  Certainly with $1,000,000 floating around over head a reasonable gangster would be able to procure this.  GTA5 simply doesn’t have any excuses for not introducing some sort of storage system.

3. Health System

We were still scrounging for health packs in 2009, will we be doing it in 2013?  In the past two years I’ve definitely seen a consensus form in shooting games that health should regenerate over time, and that a “health pack” system should be phased out.

The health system in GTA4 introduced first aid kits hidden in long missions.  These were always placed in areas where a first aid kit would probably be found in real life, like in an HR office at a warehouse.  It made sense, but it’s arguably antiquated.  Then again, automatically regenerating health feels a little cheap in a lot of newer games.  I see room for reform here though.

4. Something to Do With the Money

“What can I do with the money?”  That was always the first thing someone would ask after playing GTA3 for 10 minutes.  Surprisingly, after using a similar format for the past decade, Rockstar has done very little to answer this question.

Obviously you can use money to buy weapons and ammo, but generally you get plenty of this by just outliving the guys shooting at you during the missions.  You can buy clothes, but frankly the fact that each item needs to be tried on one at a time makes this feel feature feel like a chore.

Originally, in GTA3 money was a bizzaro fiat for score.  Players accumulated money through the game’s missions, but also by moonlighting as a taxi driver.  Causing general mayhem by blowing up parked cars and gunning down cops, or going over crazy jumps also caused the player’s money to increase.  Money was like a rating of how cumulatively awesome you were.  Unfortunately, in real life it’s not quite that easy to earn money.

In Vice City, dollars were needed to make investments, both creating a feeling of running a criminal empire, but also were key to advancing the main story.  San Andreas had some of these features too, although they were inconsistent in the availability (I think there is a car dealership in San Francisco you can buy or something).  Buying fancy suits naturally fits into the crimelord motif.

GTA4 for some reason took a step back from having some actually useful things to do with the money.  I’m not sure why, but I half suspect this to be a deliberate statement about Niko’s journey; Niko was never in it for the money, but was instead singularly focused on revenge.  Then the inability to use the money could be viewed as some sort of personal condemnation of the things Niko has done.  Or maybe they just didn’t have enough time before it was released to get creative enough.

GTA5 needs to figure out some sort of way for a player to enjoy themselves that grows in proportion to the amount of money they have.  Sure there’s a strip club, but not a high end strip club for millionaires.  What about high-end escorts?  Bring back buying up property, even if it doesn’t do much.  Would it really be so crazy to create a legal title system and actually let a player purchase a car? (yes I realize you could just steal one by hitting the triangle button)

5. Better Menus/Customizable HUD

The year is 1986 and I don't know how fast I'm going.

The year is 1986 and I don’t know how fast I’m going.

The beauty of the menus in GTA3 is the simplicity.  In most games, getting into a car means populating all sorts of dials and gauges.  After all, this is what happens when we get into a car; we’ve got a speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, clock, climate control, radiator temperature.  Driving a car has just as many stats in real life as it would in a Japanese RPG.  Arguably top speed in GTA isn’t really relevant, you’re never on a race track and the only relevant speed metric is whether you can get away from the cops.  But still, shouldn’t a driving game give you some idea of how fast you’re going?  Initially I assumed GTA3 omitted the speedometer in order to emulate an earlier favorite of mine, Driver.  Driver was great because it was the first driving game about getting away as opposed to straight up racing.  It was also a lot more fun than other races out at the time.  But now I wonder why I can’t find out fast the Infernus is actually going on that straight-away. Interestingly enough, a speedometer is built into the game and your top speed stats are tracked, but you can’t look at it in real time.

It’s almost like Rockstar thinks menus don’t fit into what they’re trying to show you.  Kudos.  But when trying to get away from a police helicopter, a speedometer surely is more useful than an ever-present floating personal wealth statistic.  Driving is inherently based on collecting and digesting a ton of data.  Give me something here.  I think the best approach to addressing the stylistic rift is giving the player the ability to add or delete display items.  If I want to clutter up my screen with junk, let me.NOTE: I omitted the shooting controls from this post.  Third person shooters are becoming an endangered genre and I’m not sure I’m qualified to explain why or what Rockstar should do to make the experience better.  Ever since GTA3 the shooting system has improved though, and I’m optimistic it will someday be good.  GTA4 reminded me a lot of the James Bond Everything or Nothing game, but that’s not really a bad thing.

The year is 2013, will I ever figure out how fast I'm going?

The year is 2013, will I ever figure out how fast I’m going?

 

GTA 5: Expectations

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

My last post had a lot more views compared to other ones I’ve had recently, so I decided to get a poll going.  So, what does everybody think GTA5 is going to do in September?  Is this game going to be break Rockstar’s long streak of outdoing itself?

GTA 5: Returning to San Andreas With High Expectations

I’m really impressed by these three mini-trailers that were just released this past week.  No doubt that there is a strong correlation here between the impending release of GTA 5 and Rockstar parent, Take-Two Entertainment’s, stock price in the past nine months.

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

What’s most impressive about the three character approach is that it’s obviously meant to remedy deficiencies in the story-telling of GTA’s San Andreas.  San Andreas is a great game, but the narrative struggled with developing an identity for the main character, CJ.

This problem is partly due to the RPG and customization elements in the game that give the player the choices to make CJ look like a gang-banger, a CEO, or a construction worker (also there is that weird S&M outfit…).  San Andreas is such a big place, that after the first act, CJ just sort of feels out of place.  The entire San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) portions of GTA: San Andreas feel aimless.  CJ’s story starts and ends in the same place, his hood.  That’s the point.  After a very long detour at the end of the first act, the final mission takes you back there to confront characters you haven’t seen 100 hours of play time.  It’s incoherent.  Fortunately, the meat and potatoes in between are a lot of fun.

If San Andreas is 3 times bigger than it needs to be, why did Rockstar bother making all that extra stuff?  The answer appears to be an obsession with attention to detail.  San Andreas is LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas because it’s trying as hard as possible to capture and satirize the Southern California 90’s zeitgeist, even if CJ’s world is naturally a little bit smaller.

I remember seeing GTA3 and just being completely amazed by the size of the game.  In the past 10 years there have been a lot of knock-offs of the GTA style of creating huge worlds, but all seem to suffer from the same flaw of confusing physical space with scale.  What you won’t really appreciate until you’ve run down every alley looking for hidden packages is that a gigantic portion of every GTA game is hand-made.  There is not a lot of 3D modeling copying and pasting.  There are no identical city blocks.  GTA4 even features a huge fake-internet.  It’s the attention to detail that separates GTA from every other massive game world.  Other developers just don’t do this, not even Bethesda.

Venice Beach?

Venice Beach?

GTA4 marks a big evolution over San Andreas, even if it isn’t as large and vast as its predecessor.  The major difference in GTA4 is the emphasis on social perspective, and I don’t mean multiplayer or or Twitter.  GTA4 lets Liberty City be defined through the eyes of its characters.  Activities open up depending on who you’re hanging out with and what you’re planning on doing.  And engaging with the people you’re working with is part of the experience as opposed to just getting a cell phone call and showing up.

And GTA5 promises to be somehow significantly larger yet again.  The obvious approach to reconciling South Central gang warfare, with pot growing up in the red woods, and the glitz of Beverly Hills is to tell the stories of those places through the eyes of separate characters.  GTA4 maximizes the story of Liberty City the same way, through different characters, albeit only through downloadable content, but the premise is the same.  The world of Luis Lopez, and the club scene of Liberty City is very different from Niko’s darker struggle to get revenge.  To tell the story of a heavily satirized California it is necessary to have many different perspectives, in the same way the DLC tells a broader story about Liberty City through its three characters.

This obsessive attention to making everything perfect is exactly why concerns about juggling three separate characters are likely to be unfounded.  Three times the characters makes three times the amount of narrative scope, and three times the opportunity to force interaction with a gigantic world.  It’s a very deliberate choice that is clearly a response to maximizing the incredible amount of content GTA5 will offer just because, well, it’s Rockstar.  I can’t think of any other series that is virtually guaranteed to get better with each installment, other than GTA.  Given the additional PS3 and XBox console penetration compared to 2009, GTA is again going to be breaking its own sales record come later this year.