Issue #152
March 21, 2014
Up, Up, Down, Down
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Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. It's finally March, though it may not feel that way. I have no clue if all is sunny and green for our neighbours to the south or across the pond, but here in Canada people are losing their freaking minds. I'll remind you that we're accustom to colder temperatures before I make the inane complaint that it was -37 degrees Celsius (-34.6 Fahrenheit) last night in my city, including wind-chill. Suffice to say, conditions in the Great North have become less hospitable. Thankfully, this PSA still warm my heart:

Clumsy transitions aside, we'll be covering a handful of interesting video game industry topics this week, starting with a fairly high-profile departure. Castlevania legend Koji Igarashi recently departed from Konami. Iga, as he's affectionately known in the fan base, was pulled away from the franchise with the Lords of Shadow trilogy, and as of late has been working on a few social games for Konami. We'll get into what prompted the change after 24 years with the company, and what might be next for him and the Castlevania franchise without him.

If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:

  • With Koji gone, what will happen to the Castlevania series?

  • Has the Lords of Shadow franchise had a negative impact on Castlevania?

  • What should the franchise's next move be?

The father of Metroidvania is no longer at Konami. Koji "Iga" Igarashi, a veteran game producer best known for his work on the Castlevania series, had his last day at the Tokyo-based game company on March 15. Longtime fans of the franchise are in a bit of a tizzy right now, and it's fairly understandable as to why. Before we dig into what's next, we should properly explain who Iga is and what he's done for the classic action-adventure/action-RPG franchise.

Igarashi joined Konami in 1990 and wrote the landmark dating sim Tokimeki Memorial, however, he's more known today for his work on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the similar 2D Castlevania games that followed.

Symphony of the Night was not expected by Konami to be a huge success. In fact, when making the transition to fifth-generation consoles (PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Saturn) Konami was putting most of its eggs in the basket of a completely 3D Castlevania. The company figured that the series and its mechanics had to evolve in order to survive, and commissioned a team to develop a next gen game for the Nintendo 64. That 3D game would be a few years away from release and Konami decided to green-light a quick, cheap 2D side-project to fill the gap. That project was Symphony of the Night.

Symphony of the Night didn't star one of the main characters of the Castlevania and didn't seek to modernize anything. Instead, the game would refine mechanics and add elements of other genres. The game was created as a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood (the Japanese version of Dracula X), and Richter Belmont would return, though he wouldn't be the star. Instead, the developers resurrected Alucard from Castlevania III.

Since it wasn't supposed to be a part of the main series, the crew was allowed more freedom than they would have had otherwise. Knowing that this might be the last 2D Castlevania, they decided to go all out — embracing all elements of the series they loved and tossing out anything that had become overdone. The whip was gone, but Alucard was armed to the teeth with the coolest weaponry and armor the 18th century could offer. RPG elements were added so that Alucard's combat efficiency would improve as he progressed through the game. Finally, the act of progressing through Dracula's castle was also altered to become more exploratory, with plenty of hidden areas and branching, non-linear paths (hence the term "Metroidvania"). The game was a huge hit with critics, but unexpectedly also hit home with consumers in Japan and abroad.

This was a niche product meant for only hardcore fans of the series, so Konami initially only produced a small amount of copies. When stores sold out they decided to do a second run of shipments... and then a third... and a fourth. In fact, Konami didn't stop producing copies of the game for years to come. Out of nowhere, the company had managed to produce a smash hit with critics and fans alike using a relatively small budget. It was a huge deal made even huger by the colossal failure of the 3D Castlevanias for the Nintendo 64. Had Iga not been part of Symphony of the Night's development, his career and the future of the franchise itself might not have been the same.

After the series hit its arguable apex in 2D and rock-bottom in 3D, Konami decided to look ahead towards future platforms for the series. Development of a 3D title would continue on the PS2, while leveraging cheaper 2D adventures on the GBA. The first of these games, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the GBA, made without Iga's support, had been criticized for a handful of its design elements and was eventually removed from the series' official timeline. From there, Iga would take over. Under his loving guardianship, all future 2D Castlevanias would implement tight controls, consistent writing, detailed graphics, and deep gameplay. He would also contribute to the writing of future 3D Castlevanias, though the PS2 releases didn't fare much better with consumers than the Nintendo 64 tittles.

Something changed roughly five years ago. Konami announced Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game considered to be a reboot of the franchise that was outsourced to Spanish developer MercurySteam. Iga, however, was not involved as a producer and was assigned elsewhere.

The first release in the Lords of Shadow series was fairly well received. Yes — it lifted a few too many elements from the God of War franchise and downright plagiarized Shadow of the Colossus, but the game was still considered enjoyable by many and did sell well. MercurySteam's Dave Cox later told Edge, "We needed to make a change, so we did. The Castlevania series wasn't going anywhere, sales were dwindling and it was appealing only to a very small, hardcore fanbase. That's how franchises die. [...] We have to take these risks if Castlevania is to survive; otherwise it's just going to be like Mega Man." One has to wonder if being "like Mega Man is actually a bad thing.

Considering this game to be a successful retreatment of the franchise, Konami allowed MercurySteam to continue developing entries in the Castlevania series. They soon released Castlevania: Lords of Shadow — Mirror of Fate, a 2.5D handheld Castlevania lacking much of the depth of Iga's previous handheld Castlevania titles. Critics were frustrated that the game couldn't decide whether it wanted to be linear or exploratory, and bemoaned the predictable story, loose ties to the franchise, and sloppy controls. 1UP alumni Jeremy Parish also made a point of stating that the game was attempting to be Symphony of the Night, while lacking all of the elements that made that game so compelling.

It was around this point in time that many Castlevania fans began to wonder why Iga was stuck developing social games instead of working on his own 2D Castlevania title. He admitted as much in a recent post-departure interview with Kotaku. "I keep getting messages from fans, via Facebook and such, telling me that they wanted me to make consumer games," Iga said. "The people who like my games tend to play traditional video games. I'm in my mid-forties. If I don't strike out on my own now, then when will I?" After resolving to move on from Konami, he made this statement in an official release: "I've decided to break out on my own to have the freedom to make the kind of games I really want to make — the same kind I think fans of my past games want as well."

With Iga now gone, it's hard not to be at least a bit concerned for the future of the Castlevania. Lords of Shadow 2 was not well received by critics and currently stands at a 60/100 for its PC version. Worse, a nameless developer at MercurySteam has claimed that working conditions at the developer were poor, Konami provided little supervision, and that David Cox was a tyrant. In fact, Cox even stated that he was not a Castlevania fan. I can't say for certain if the game has sold well, but I think it's safe to say that the next entry in the franchise will likely not be developed by MercurySteam.

Does Konami still care about this franchise? Does Castlevania still have the potential to rise from the grave? It's hard to tell at this point. I can say that I find it confusing that the company would hand the franchise to a man who doesn't identify as a fan. One of Iga's major selling points was that he acted as a guardian of the franchise, respecting the themes that made Castlevania what it was. I can't help but think that Konami is going to put this series on the back burner — again — after the disappointing Lords of Shadow 2, and if that is the case I have no clue how they would plan to reboot the franchise a third time.

Sources: Kotaku, 1UP, Konami

Any GameStop employee will tell you that very little profit is made for the company off the sale of new video games and consoles. In fact, if we consider the rising tide of digital downloads, it would be nigh impossible for an organization like GameStop to exist today if its profits were predicated on new sales alone. No, the company has developed a firm system of hustling previously owned games, peripherals, and hardware. They do this by giving you relatively small amounts of store credit for your games and reselling those for about 20 percent less than the new game price. It's a great model; one that has made the company roughly $2 billion a year. Unfortunately for GameStop, the world's largest retailer is about to invade their turf.

Walmart has announced plans to launch a large-scale video game trade-in program at 3,100 stores across America. Working in conjunction with CE Exchange, the store will allow consumer to swap games for store credit, which can be used to purchase anything that Walmart sells. Used games could be available to in-store shoppers as early as this summer.

Walmart plans to accept games for all existing console systems — from the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3 to the new generation titles of PS4, Wii U, and Xbox One. No systems will be accepted on trade. The company says prices will vary depending on a title's popularity, but expects the average price paid per game to be around $35. That's a big deal.

As I alluded to, GameStop is able to make a big buck because they're a major player in the space and few others offer competitive trade credit or used game prices. Walmart is now positioning itself to disrupt the way things are done. Is that a smart move though? GameStop claims that it profits from the sale of used games are roughly 25 percent higher than what the company earns from new titles. That's a huge margin that you could ruin by trying to be overly competitive. Sure, it would be great for the consumer to pay less for used titles and get more on trade-ins, but what's the point of Walmart claiming a slice of the pie if the pie becomes smaller as a result? Hell, that's assuming they can actually pull used games off.

Walmart attempted this before in 2009 and gave up pretty quickly. Toys R Us, Target, and several other major retailers have also tried to get into used game sales, but abandoned their tests. Allocating inventory among stores isn't a fun process and it can be hard to predict the value of an after-market title. The quality of trade-ins is a huge problem to deal with as well. Disks need to be refurbished or repaired before they can be resold, which adds a time-leg to the re-sell cycle. GameStop, for instance, says it has to fix approximately 14 million used games each year before reselling them and none of that happens overnight.

Who knows what this news will mean to used game enthusiasts, such as myself, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Walmart will use the same high-volume bully tactics on GameStop that it does on little mom and pop shops: lowering prices astronomically and adding value in spite of the negative affect it has on their business in order to destroy the competition. Used games are pretty much the only thing bringing in the bucks for GameStop and this news is a substantial threat. That's not to say that used games will be around forever though.

Every year the amount of physical copies of games sold decreases while digital sales rise. It's one of the reasons why we can't rely on NPD or HIS data anymore for video game sales. We edge ever closer to a world in which everything is bought and installed electronically. Walmart may be able to play cat and mouse with GameStop for a while, but I honestly can't see a used game market past this console generation. The clock is ticking and the pie is shrinking.

Sources: GameStop, Walmart

Let's talk about Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It's the latest in the hallowed Metal Gear Solid franchise, but isn't actually a full experience — in spite of the fact that it is being sold independently. This is a prologue chapter similar to Metal Gear Solid 2: Guns of the Patriot's Tanker Incident chapter. As such, the gameplay time is severely limited and we only catch a glimpse of what is on the horizon. It truly is nothing more than a taste of what is to come in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. And yet, we have to treat it like a game all its own because Ground Zeroes isn't free to play and Konami was too impetuous to wait and release it with the full game.

It would be an understatement to call the response to Ground Zeroes mixed. Some critics praised its looks, sounds, refined gameplay mechanics, and non-linear, experimental nature. Others made a point of criticising the lack of things to do, the lack of area to explore, and the relatively high price tag. You'll see review scores around the internet ranging anywhere from 9/10 to 4.5/10. Oddly enough, they all have a right to feel that way about this experience.

I can't emphasize this enough: we have to treat Ground Zeroes as a stand-alone game because it is sold and marketed as such. In reality, Ground Zeroes is nothing more at this point in time than a gameplay demo. Are those harsh words? Maybe, but the game doesn't do much at this point to justify its pricy existence. We don't have enough context to understand everything that's happening. We don't have enough gameplay to distract from the lack of context. We don't have enough open world to distract from the lack of gameplay. We just don't have enough.

Normally, I don't discuss individual video games in Currents. This column is generally dedicated to the video game industry, not video games themselves. In this case, however, Ground Zeroes could set a disturbing industry precedent: selling the promise of a good game to come with a two-hour vertical slice of gameplay at the average cost of a budget video game. The $30 you have to drop to play this game is a huge problem, considering the fact that it is about half the price of what The Phantom Pain will someday demand and only offers a small fragment of that game's value. If other major franchise begin to follow Ground Zeroes' example, it's likely that the brands themselves will suffer.

Make no mistake: had Ground Zeroes been a free gameplay demo, this would not have been an issue. In fact, Konami would have been applauded for releasing such an amazing teaser. Sadly, we live in a world where game companies have dollar signs in their eyes and nothing left in their hearts. I hope, for all of our sakes, that the next Halo, Uncharted, Final Fantasy, and Witcher games don't release pay-to-play "prologue chapters" before their official releases. If this "demo as full game" process is continued by other companies, I can't see myself supporting those franchises in the future.

Source: Konami

We've discussed Disney as an employer before. There was that time in 2012 when they laid off 50 employees after shutting down Junction Point Studios. Then there was that other time in 2011 when they shed 200 employees. Oh, and then there is the fact that they killed LucasArts after over thirty years in the business. Suffice to say, the big mouse in the sky doesn't have a great reputation in the video games business when it comes to personnel, and the company's latest round of layoffs will not improve that.

Disney Interactive has recently eliminated roughly 700 positions worldwide — about 26 percent of its total workforce. These cuts mostly affected Disney's Playdom group, which produces games for social-media platforms, although a Disney rep said the layoffs would occur across the board in the business unit. Along with the layoffs, Disney Interactive will close offices in Chicago, New Jersey, Colorado, South Korea and Hyderabad, India.

These layoffs come amid the success of Disney Infinity, which combines plastic figures and video games to let players create their own virtual worlds. Disney has sold more than 3 million copies of the Skylanders rip-off since its release in August 2013, as well as oodles of plastic figurines. You'd think this would be enough to improve the company's bottom line, but most of the company's social game endeavors since acquiring Playdom in 2010 for $763 million have been failures. Supposedly, this round of cuts is to ensure the business will be nimble enough to operate and be innovative moving forward. That's all well and good from a business perspective, but Disney seemed to overlook the effects of these drastic actions.

When you do things that affect people's livelihoods, such as laying off substantial amounts of your staff, you do a disservice to your corporate image. That's just the nature of the beast. For example, if I were a budding game designer and I had the opportunity to work for a Disney studio or any of its competitors, I would pick the competitor every time. Why? It's simple: unlike smaller players in the industry, Disney adjusts its workforce to suit its shareholders. You could say that EA, Activision, Take-Two Interactive, Square Enix, and Ubisoft are in the same boat, but even they don't have quite the nasty reputation for ruthless layoffs that Disney does. They do no favours for themselves as employers and the top talent of the industry will likely avoid them in the future as a result. That has the unfortunate consequence of hurting innovation.

I'm not saying that Disney is boned for adjusting their workforce, but it should be acknowledged that actions like this have negative consequences that are far reaching — a lesson Disney hasn't learned yet. If I could, I would like to wish those affected by these reductions all the best in the future. I have no doubt that many of you have already been contacted by potential employers, and those who haven't are likely highly employable. It's a shame that you had to leave your role, but hopeful this can lead to new and innovative things elsewhere.

Source: GamesIndustry

That's it for this issue of Currents. Shout out to Sarah McGarr for the new 'Currents' icon. 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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