Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 2 of 2)

I was ready to finish this post back in September, but a lot of other things came up. Another interesting thing happened before I finished it; I decided I’m not going to get in on the Gran Turismo 6 bandwagon. Still, I feel obligated to finish this, especially since the first post did pretty well with respect to site traffic.

6. Better Driving Tutorials

Back on the PS1, the great tutorials offered in the License Exam segments really made the GT series stand out against other rivals. The License Exam segments came back in GT5, but in the context of the content as a whole, they weren’t adequate.

But for a game that really, REALLY prides itself on being such a simulator, GT5 did a very poor job at offering guidance in a lot of key areas. Major aspects of the game, like Formula One were not part of the licensing tests at all. The “NASCAR” academy was equally unsatisfying given how different and challenging the NASCAR segments of the game were.

7. Kill B-Spec

B-Spec should actually be a lot higher on this list. It’s not only that a major aspect of the game is frankly terrible, it’s that you’re positively forced to do so very much of it if you want to unlock some really important cars.

B-Spec operates essentially as a counterpart to the driving part of GT5, which is called A-Spec. You’re required to pick a rookie driver from a set of personality types, and eventually build a team of drivers who will go out and use your cars to win the A-Spec races. B-Spec seems like a simple proposition, but the execution is completely flawed. What B-Spec requires you to do is issue a very limited set of instructions to a bot that must gain experience using your cars.

There’s a whole bunch of problems with this system of playing. First, you’re required to do pretty much nothing to win races. At lower levels, drivers don’t really respond to your commands as it is, and the computer may lose even if it has a car that completely outclasses the other computer bots. This makes the actual races less like a coaching exercise, which I think is what it was supposed to be, and more like just a passive watching exercise. It’s boring. And there’s no tutorial or guidance on how to be proficient at being a racing coach. Generally you can tell your driver to speed up, or be conservative, or do a pit stop. That’s pretty much it. I can’t say skill or actively trying to manage the drivers really does much to outcome. Second, the game doesn’t offer any sort of time compression, meaning you’re watching computer race versus itself in real time. Unlike sports games which shorten the length of passive play styles, there are usually MORE laps in certain B-Spec races. I think practically speaking I used these long B-Spec binges as a great opportunity to catch up on my ironing. The AI for your race team is usually terrible; I guess this is because GT has always had pretty lousy AI anyway. But perhaps the worst requirement of B-Spec is requiring the player to build and level an entire team of racers at the same slow pace as A-Spec. Leveling the drivers usually just requires you to win the races, which isn’t especially difficult given you probably have the overpowered car you used in A-Spec to win the same series. The catch is that your race team only has a limited amount of “endurance,” meaning longer races the AI will basically just give up on driving and blow a huge lead. The endurance state builds up very slowly though, making multiple losses in endurance races necessary to get better. Remember, this is a game with the real-time endurance race “24 Hours LeMans.”

It’s not hard to see that B-Spec isn’t fun in any sort of way. It’s a driving game that requires no skill to complete, just an insane amount of time. That’s why is maddening that the game offers a gigantic number of cars that can ONLY be unlocked by winning B-Spec races.

To mitigate the insane time requirements B-Spec, a novel “Remote Play” feature was added in a subsequent patch. What did this feature add? The ability to manage B-Spec races taking place on your PS3 remotely from a PC. This feature doesn’t fix the root problem that you shouldn’t have to watch 500 hours of racing just to earn a car to do something in A-Spec mode. The B-Spec achievements shouldn’t be tied to A-Spec at all. A racing game shouldn’t put some much emphasis on waiting around. It’s anathema to the actual draw the game is supposed to offer.

8. Fix Formula One

Formula One, despite recent controversies and shaky financial support, is and likely will be the king of auto racing for the foreseeable future. Despite being the pinnacle of the A-Spec mode of play, GT5 offers little support.

One clear problem with the Formula One racing was the inability of GT5 to actually allow you to buy the car you needed. In addition to needing over $4,000,000 of race money in the game (average race payout maybe is $100,000), the Formula One car had to purchased USED for some reason. Compounding this problem at launch was that the used car inventory was populated randomly over the course of the game. Effectively, it was impossible to advance in A-Spec because you could never buy the next car. Eventually Sony corrected this problem by creating an “Online Used Car Garage,” which was prepopulated with the bottle-neck race vehicles that couldn’t be purchased new. Still, it was a sloppy execution and not necessary.

I suspect the problems with Formula One dealt with licensing issues. It’s not technically a Formula One car you’re buying anyway, it’s a “Formula GT.” Whatever. The lack of support in teaching you how to drive these cars though is perplexing. Although GT5 makes you appreciate the difference between a family sedan and a true sports car, the leap of performance the Formula cars make over even the Le Mans class racers is significant. If Sony couldn’t get the licensing issues, this feature should have been scrapped altogether. After all, would it have been so bad to just get Indy sponsorship and use similar Indy cars?

9. Create a Tutorial System For Tuning

Although most of the tuning aspects of GT5 and its predecessors is straightforward (spend as much money as possible to make your car more power and lighter), other aspects of auto-tuning were never adequately explained. In particular, the intricacies of suspension tuning are incredible. Without the exact right setup for even individual legs of racing series, it’s not possible to win at the higher levels. If this is such an important feature of the game, why not have some sort of instruction available? I’ll confess, the best way to figure out how to make a perfect tuning setup seems to be typing your car and “Gran Turismo 5” into Google.

Other aspects of the tuning system are equally perplexing. For example, in the customization section of the garage (which is NOT where you purchase upgrade parts for some reason) there is an option for something called “racing modifications.” Despite the 1000 cars in GT5, only a literal handful can receive these modifications. What do they do? Well, they make the car really good, but it’s hard to say exactly how or why. Most importantly, it’s not possible to see which of the cars in the game can be subjected to these modifications. I guess you can use Google to figure this out too.

10. Introduce Horsepower Limitations Into Single-Player Mode

The critical flaw in any game that has RPG or leveling style elements in it is that those run counter to the aspects of the game that require skill. This has always been a problem with Gran Turismo; winning races is based on having more power than the other cars on the track. But this doesn’t really let you learn how to race any better. It’s a big loophole that this game doesn’t address in single-player mode (multiplayer has such limitations though). There isn’t an obvious explanation as to why limitations on tuning aren’t implemented, especially because GT5 is usually very specific about needing a very particular car or limited set of cars for each race challenge.

Closing Thoughts

I could easily criticize the fact that Polyphony is releasing GT6 for PS3 when it arguably should be a PS4 game, but if the last console generation has taught us anything, it will be a long time before any next-gen console makes it into 100 million households. But given the phoned-in nature of GT5, and the fact that a lot of obvious improvements or design flaws weren’t addressed, I’ve lost faith that this installment will really take things to the next level. Going back to all those lost weekends where I was doing laundry and having B-Spec run in the background, I have come to realize that this franchise needs to some time in the penalty box. I expect the initial reviews for GT6 to be good, but that’s only because there’s always a release bias. I learned my lesson though. If GT5 is any indication of the way GT6 will be, I’ll be able to drive the exact same cars when they’re imported over to whatever the PS4 version will be anyway.

GTAV(PS3): Spirit of San Andreas Alive and Well

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First Impressions

I’m unlikely to find a spare week lying around anytime soon, but I managed to get in on the launch here and play GTAV for a few hours. GTAV is already getting strong reviews on MetaCritic, but considering the breadth of the endeavor, there is a risk that preliminary reviews might be a little misleading. I’ll try and give my thoughts as they develop.

First off; great work by the Rockstar folks. GTAV looks to be the real deal. The game functionally looks like a heavily updated GTAIV, but feels like the spiritual successor to GTA:San Andreas. By that, I mean the RPG-style elements of play and crazy emphasis on customization have been reintroduced. Driving, shooting, and strength stats have been added for each of the three playable characters, and all are increased through player utilization. Customization doesn’t just extend to cars and clothes, but also to weapons. There also seems to be the return of endless mini-games and odd-job type ways of making money, in addition to completing missions. This is on top of the GTAIV “hang-out” features. Finally, the internet is back, but this time it’s accessible on the go through the character’s phone.

Other common sense updates have been made. Returning home to save is no longer required; outside of a mission you can do a quick-save on your smart phone. Also, as predicted, health below 50% now replenishes over time. There is less invasive auto-aim system now, and shooting mechanics make action scenes feel like an actual game. The “Wanted Level” system has again been modified, this time relying on line-of-sight as a prerequisite for escape, as opposed to just outrunning a radius. Action cut-scenes also have an actual score, in addition to the ridiculous amount of traditional radio station content. All these are really good tweaks.

In a nutshell, everything from prior GTA games is here, but then was multiplied again by 100. It’s really amazing. It’s also what the company promised to deliver. But more volume of content isn’t the only way replay value has been upped. Completing missions now gives the player a rating, and reveals additional bonus objectives at the end. Why this is significant is because there is FINALLY the option of replaying missions. GTAV does everything the other games did well (great characters, story, expansive content; extreme player freedom), but also focuses on the aspects that rewards skill and higher levels of play. No doubt the deficiency in requiring players to have a lot of skill was identified as a problem for a company that wants to base a significant part of this franchise’s future on multiplayer online content.

Other Neat Stuff

GTAV is a serious multimedia effort. In game content can be added or unlocked by downloading the “iFruit” smart phone app on an actual phone. There are also invitations for players to join the Rockstar Social Club to continue modifying endeavors. Finally, the connection to the wired world appears to be pervasive in the story mode; go to an Ammu-Nation and there is an option to go to the PlayStation Store. Although as of this morning there was nothing in there, I am excited that there will be some great updates down the road (although I’m also a little fearful Rockstar will introduce some “free-to-play” dynamics in).

And of course the strip club is back. Interacting with strippers can be increased by flirting, adding a challenge element to the outing (try your luck too hard and you’ll get booted out by the bouncer).

Problems

I’d be hard-pressed to find any real problems with this game, but I have noticed the PS3 really seems to be stressed running it. The optical disc is constantly being read and it’s loud. Some menu inputs also look a little sluggish. I’m wondering if it runs better on the XBox360. This is in addition to a solid 30 minute installation that takes up 8gb of HDD space. Given the amount of content, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best expression of the limits to the current console generation.

Finally, the additional features added to both car and on-foot mechanics are a little overwhelming. In either case, the D-Pad is used to add a whole bunch of actions that are introduced gradually during the story missions. The tutorial isn’t overly paternalistic, and clearly a significant part of the story is going to be dedicated to getting all the basics down. But now there are a ton of additional options. Guns can be equipped with flashlights which have to be turned on and off, stealth elements have been brought back (arguably a little clunky), and there a whole bunch of new things to do in cars like lower the top or flip on the lights. These are all welcome elements, but at the same time there doesn’t appear to be a logical road map as to how to do some of these things with the controls. I just know I’m going to forget how to do something on the D-Pad at some point with the way it’s laid out.

All in all, my first impressions are that Rockstar has delivered even more than it promised to.

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?