Issue #136
July 11, 2013
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of RPGamer's Currents. Hope it is warm and sunny where you are, as temperatures are finally hospitable on my end. I know this because my face is currently the colour of strawberries. Apparently, at least for my Snow White epidermis, a half-hour of walking is the equivalent of having a fist-fight with the sun. A fist-fight that you lose. Regardless, we're here to talk about video games — not my poor sun lotioning skills.

Before we dig into what's happening in the industry, let's take a minute to reflect on how perception affects consumer behavior. There are a lot of people who are of the belief that the media bears no impact on what we say and do; I am not one of them. Before the OUYA was but a gleam in Kickstarter's eye, it was just a big idea from people who liked their television and want to try something new. No one on the OUYA team expected it to demolish its goals like it did. They also never presented it as the thing to topple Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony's business structure. The video game media did. The media saw the potential of this device and promoted the hell out of it. That's why hordes of idealistic gamers backed it so quickly.

Before we knew anything about the system's quality, and well before a few tech sites decided to review the developer model, all we were aware of was the console's original intent. Since that point, numerous media outlets have said almost the same thing: "OUYA has promise, but is held back by a number of faults." This has led some backers to sell the device without even trying it out for themselves:

He "sincerely regrets" backing it, but are those feelings warranted?

The OUYA is officially a thing. You, me, and Sam McGee can now trot to our favourite local technology retailer, drop $99 (USD) on the counter, and plug the grapefruit-sized Android device to our HDMI monitors and TVs. This is a landmark occasion in the Kickstarter world; something was conceived, actively promoted, successfully funded, and commercialised. It's a great achievement, but it also begs several questions. What is the OUYA? Did the device meet expectations? Should we be buying it out of principle alone? Today, I'll try and answer those queries based on my extremely subjective experience with the new console.

The OUYA is a full video game console running on an augmented version of Android 4.1 (Jellybean). The specs and design are the brainchild of industry veteran Julie Uhrman and Jawbone CCO and designer Yves Béhar, with the overall goal of disrupting the challenging console market. It was a darling on Kickstarter, where it raised a total of $8.5 million and became the crowdfunding platform's second most successful project ever. In terms of technical capabilities, the OUYA boasts an nVidia Tegra 3 T33-P-A3 integrated circuit, a quad-core processor, 8 GB of internal storage, 1 GB of RAM, two USB ports (one USB 2.0 and one micro USB), and HDMI output — all in a tiny plastic shell. That all sounds very impressive, until you consider that the device's power is comparable to that of a modern smartphone.

The device itself looks gorgeous. Regardless of what your thoughts are on its internals, which can be modded and likely will be upgraded in future releases, the box itself and the included controller are pleasing to the eye. Unlike most boxes that hook up to your television, consoles included, the OUYA is so discreet that it's easy to forget it is even there. The design is simple and it does its job, so I don't have many complaints about the stylish appearance (though, the weighting on the box seems off as soon as you plug an HDMI cable in the back). Unfortunately, while the controller looks great, it feels a bit cheap in your hands and is subject to a number of performance issues. Gamers who use controllers regularly will notice a considerable input lag on many of the games native to the OUYA Store. This can be rectified through the use of a wired Xbox 360 or wireless PS3 controller, but the console deserved to be shipped with a reliable controller.

It also plays emulators of your favourite retro systems.

The user interface, while clean and pretty, needs a lot of work from a usability standpoint. Unlike most console launches, where games are few in number, the OUYA actually boasts a large amount of titles. This works as a double edge sword for OUYA; it is very easy to get lost looking for games and the discovery process needs to be streamlined. Some gamers will be okay with this, but those who expected a pick up and play experience will likely be a little disappointed. Thankfully, all of the OUYA's games boast the great advantage of starting out free, and you can always apply emulators instead (though, this requires far more work than I would have imagined).

The OUYA's games play pretty well on the console (with the right controller), however, it's clear that a lot of these titles were intended to be played on a 6- or 7-inch screen — not your widescreen HDTV. It is also clear that OUYA, much like the Android marketplace itself, has taken the "quantity over quality" approach. Too few titles are really worth your time, and there are a number of headscratchers added to the mix. I'm sure the game selection will improve with time, but right now you may find your cute little console collecting dust.

It's hard, at least at this point in time, to think of the OUYA as anything other than a niche novelty — even to console gamers. As much as I appreciate how friendly the platform is to indie developers, the modding community, and gamers in general, the system currently does nothing that a smartphone with the right cable hookups couldn't. There are also a number of standing issues with the hardware's quality, user interface friendliness, and OUYA store game library. To some, I'm sure this little box will be an instant purchase because it represents a world of future possibilities, but I would humbly advise you save your dollars and cents until another OUYA console version is released. Even if you believe in supporting the underdog.

The Xbox One will be launching in just a few short months and its top boss has chosen to take himself out of the picture. It's an unprecedented move on his part, but could be seen as a bit baffling for a few other reasons. Under this man's leadership, the Xbox brand grew from being an industry player to an industry leader. It's clear, based on how long he's been with Microsoft and how much sway he seemingly had over the consumer entertainment division, that he was fairly engaged in the tech giant. He certainly does stand by the Xbox One platform. So, why would he leave now, and why depart for the struggling Zynga?

Disregarding rumours of a major staff reorganization on the horizon for Microsoft, I'm not sure there was much room for Mattrick to grow. His experience is specifically in the video games industry and, if he were one of the upper managers to survive reorganization, I couldn't see him enjoying life outside of his chosen industry or making much more than he is now. It should also be noted that he is one of the more junior executives at Microsoft's ranks, so if seniority plays a part in executive operations — which it usually does — he likely will get the shortest straw.

If we were to accept that leaving his current role at Microsoft was an intelligent career move, why would he choose Zynga over EA (who is still in the search for a new CEO and has already indicated that Mattrick would have been a frontrunner). Yes, Zynga is currently not looking as hot as it once was, with stocks trading at $12 less than they did a year ago, but the company has a lot of opportunity now that they've reoriented themselves away from social gaming and towards mobile gaming. They also have a number of experienced developers, a large audience, and brand recognition. Hypothetically, Zynga just needs someone new to led them towards financial success.

While this new fit might be good for Mattrick and Zynga (it has already bumped their stock), it's hard to ignore the gaping hole this leaves in Microsoft's structure right before launch. Regardless of who fills that role, this is yet another unneeded PR situation for Microsoft to deal with. The common consensus is that Mattrick's sudden departure will affect Xbox One marketing, launch, and division leadership. What may be an instant will for Zynga could be a long-lasting loss for Xbox.

Sources: IGN, Polygon

There's been a recent ongoing theme to many of the more high-level PlayStation 4 dialogues: the PlayStation 3's formative years could have been handled better. PlayStation 4 Lead Architect Mark Cerny and SCE's Andrew House have both made a point of indicating that (1) the PlayStation 3 had a shaky launch because the console's Cell processor was difficult to develop for and proprietary first-party tools were not being shared externally, (2) Sony now realizes the importance of open dialogue, both internally and with third-party developers, and (3) the PlayStation 4 is going to be a return to form for Sony.

Speaking at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona, Cerny said the PlayStation 3 launched in 2006 with what Cerny himself identified as a "weak lineup." He maintains that it took awhile to get everyone on the same track, but they were eventually able to have frank discussions about the PlayStation 3's potential and what role third parties played. In fact, it is apparent that the PlayStation 4 owes its openness to a postmortem analysis over what had worked and what had not while developing the PlayStation 3. According to Cerny, the company now knows the cost of focusing on hardware at the expense of other platform components. Sony Computer Entertainment President Andrew House recently reaffirmed this change in approach to The Guardian.

"I see our approach on PS4 as really taking Sony Computer Entertainment back to our original roots," said House. "When we first launched with the PS1 and certainly the PS2, the goal was to give the consumer more choice, and lots of flexibility at a time when the delivery mechanism of games, on cartridges, placed a lot of restrictions on the industry. And also, by shifting to disks, to give developers — and particularly smaller ones — the chance to take risks and build a business. I think you're seeing exactly those kinds of principles applied to PS4."

Sony's appearance in this new console generation really does stand in contrast to Microsoft. In the previous generation, Microsoft won the hearts of many with a strong software library, lower hardware price, and robust online support. The Xbox One, however, appears less interested in being a gaming device, has a substantially higher price, and has already tried to enforce draconian usage rules. On the other hand, Sony now seems friendlier than ever to both gamers and developers. I can't say for certain which of these two companies will ultimately "win" this next console war, but I can say that I'm glad Sony is learning from its past mistakes.

Sources: Joystiq, The Guardian

This whole situation has become a headache for pretty much everyone involved. Back in the hazy days of 2012, Kickstarter was given a huge PR boost by Tim Schafer and industry darling Double Fine. The intent was to raise $400,000 for an adventure game that would subvert the standard publishing model. The Kickstarter goal was destroyed by crowd funders raising $3.4 million, and the game eventually became Broken Age. Unfortunately, the game has become more synonymous as of late with broken promises; development has gone over budget, "too much game" was made, and even the limited first half of the game is being pushed back.

In a message to crowd funders on the Kickstarter page, Tim Schafer admits that the scope of the game far surpassed initial budgeting. In spite of the fact that Double Fine was able to raise $3 million more than they asked for, Broken Age now is set to cost more and development has taken longer than expected — pushing release of the first half until July 2014, with the last half expected in 2015. A number of backers are pissed, media outlets are now writing editorials regarding the "danger" of backing anything, and Kickstarter is staying quiet.

Double Fine has taken the most appropriate route it possibly can in this situation: biting the bullet. Instead of going back to backers for more money or trying to find a publisher, the company has chosen to take the financial hit on any budget overages. They've already made what they call "modest" cuts to the project and will use the profit of the game's first half on steam to help fund the second half. The game is still moving forward, which is great, but this is a blow to the people who believed that Kickstarter would led to freedom of creativity without the cost of AAA budgets and mega publishers. I know that I'm disappointed.

Source: Games Industry

This is a newer section of RPGamer's Currents where we take a hard look at some video game industry rumors and attempt to assess how plausible they are. Nothing in this section has been officially confirmed, but who knows which rumors will float to the surface as fact in the future?

  • Persona 5 in Development?
    Atlus' parent company, Index Corporation, has momentarily stepped away from their numerous legal and auditing troubles to register a domain for what can be assumed to be Persona 5 ( Likelihood? High. It's been awhile since the release of Persona 4 and we know, based on how high the sales of Persona 4: Golden, how desperate fans are for more. I would bet that a new game announcement is imminent.

  • Virtual Boy Games Coming to Virtual Console
    At Nintendo's annual shareholder's meeting, someone suggested adding Virtual Boy titles to the eShop's Virtual Console section. Satoru Iwata responded somewhat favourably in replying that they would "take note" of the recommendation for the future. Likelihood? Low. The Virtual Boy was a massive disappointment for the company. Not only was it a commercial failure, but it also led to the creator of the GameBoy losing his job and years of Nintendo trying to pretend that the device never existed through PR retcon. This probably won't happen.

  • Kingdom Hearts: The Empire Strikes Back
    In an interview with Final Fantasy website Finaland, Kingdom Hearts III Director Tesuya Nomura recently stated that the development team were talking about incorporating Star Wars (now that the property also belonged to Disney). Likelihood? Who knows? Disney does have the rights to all Star Wars characters, events, and settings, but licensing usually bears some medium restrictions. They may not be able to put those characters into Kingdom Hearts III.

That's it for this issue of Currents. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.

Your dork from the Great North,

Trent Seely

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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