Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pottermore: Will It Be a Game?

The news has been trickling through the internet today about a new project from J.K. Rowling dubbed "Pottermore." All that exists thus far is the web site teaser and some wild rumors. We know what it's not, however, and that's an announcement of a new book. Rowling has made that clear.

Since everyone else is speculating, I might as well join the club and ask, "Could it be a massively multiplayer Harry Potter game?" I'm thinking the answer to that is a very firm no. Electronic Arts owns the interactive rights, and they don't appear to be involved in any of the filings for the domains or trademarking of Pottermore.

I'll just take a wild shot in the dark and guess we're looking at a broad-based online Harry Potter experience which may include light gaming, but also fan content, forums, news, and retail. More to the point, Rowling has already stated that she wrote a lot extra material while building the world and writing the books, and she'd like to make that available to fans. This may well be a conduit for that kind of content. I'm guessing it's a Disney.go kinda thing, with a more fan-friendly approach. We'll know for sure next week.

The site was teased with a viral game. Ten map coordinates were sent out to fan sites. These coordinates could be entered at If you zoomed in on the location, you got a letter. If you found all ten, it spelled out "Pottermore". Here's an example:
Click to enlarge

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever: A Brief Public Service Announcement

This is not a review. I'm only able to tolerate playing Duke Nukem Forever for about an hour at a time, and then I have to take a shower to wash away the stench of the thing and maybe go to my Quiet Place and turn out the lights and listen to soothing music. Or perhaps play a little Portal 2 to remind me that games don't have to be this grotesquely awful, and that there is goodness and decency left in the world of PC gaming.

It's not that the game is vulgar, gross, sexist, crass, and stupid. It's certainly all those things, and deliberately so. It would be pointless to rail against the misogyny, omnipresent scatological references, juvenile sexuality, outrageous gore, or profanity. Those were always going to be signature elements in any Duke Nukem sequel. Complaining about them would be like going to Hooters "for the food" and complaining about the way the waitresses dress.

The only real point to be made about these elements is this: while the original Duke Nukem managed to be somewhat tasteless while still being a decent game, Duke Nukem Forever is grindingly, insultingly, nihilistically tasteless while simultaneously being one of the worst shooters I've played since Corridor 7. What was a send-up of 1980s action stereotypes in the original is now just self-referential, tired, and joyless.

The gameplay is ghastly. The level design is horrible and the game itself is boring, repetitive, and pointless. At one point Duke is shrunk down and tools around in a tiny car, and you wonder: did anybody even play this game after they made it? Did they enjoy the tiny-Duke level? Did they finish it and say, "Yes, by golly, this is something people will want to pay to experience!" Because if they did, then they really should be looking for work in some business more in line with their skill set; perhaps slop boy at a hog processing plant.

If this game was a person, he would be a paunchy middle-aged man with a bad combover and a silk shirt open to the waist to reveal the cornicello tangled in his matted, graying chest hair. It is so desperate to be Super-Alpha-Male-Plus-With-Extra-Testosterone-On-Top that it winds up merely sad and sickening.

And did I mention how bad it plays? Really, really bad. I have not finished it, but I've invested about 3 hours so far, and hated every single moment. I felt like someone was grinding my face into the gunk you find under a fridge. I didn't crack a smile once: not at the pee jokes, the cliched movie quotes, the quips, or the parade of bimbos. Everything about it was dreary and hateful. The graphics are just bad. The action is the worst possible blend of trite early-FPS shoot-n-scoot and modern pop-up shooter styles. Duke has to hide like a little girl when he's wounded, in order to have time to heal. Yet--bizarrely--the monster behavior and level design favors old-skool run-n-gun action. It's all a hot mess.

I will put more time into the game because I have to. It's my job. However, even with only a few hours under my belt, I can tell you without hesitation that you do not want to buy this game, download the demo, or look at the box. This isn't "bad in a good sort of way." It's bad in a soul-killing, suck-all-the-sunlight-from-your life sorta way.

UPDATE: I've been asked why I didn't write in detail about some of the game's most notorious elements in this post. I just didn't think I could even describe them on a site that tries to stay family friendly. I know there are kids who read this site, and I couldn't think of any language that could describe the content and still remain kid-safe. For that, I'll refer you to the review at Ars Technica, which explains just how bad it gets. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Arrivals: Godzilla, Catan & Pixies

Godzilla: Kaiju World Wars (ToyBiz, $70) unexpectedly arrived last week, landing with a mighty thud on the porch as the UPS guy ran for his life shouting "Aaaaiiiii! Gojira! Run!" I unboxed it, marveled at the lovely figures, marveled further at the hideous gameboard, and then sat down with the manual.

And there I was still sitting, an hour later, trying to search my mind for a game with worse documentation. I haven't tackled the gameplay yet, although I finally figured out that it's a pretty straightforward combat/destruction game, with Godzilla and three other monsters taking turns stomping the city and each other. The mechanics appear to have some potential, but I'll obviously need to dig more deeply before I can deliver a verdict.

The manual, however, is a disgrace. It's not merely that the gameplay, the pieces, and even the purpose of the game are poorly explained; it's that all of this is printed in teeny tiny print and without any color. The black-and-white illustrations are so dark that you can't actually tell what they're depicting. Thus, I'm not really sure what all the little chits are supposed to represent. I've heard that this was a cost-cutting measure, but if so it was the worst possible decision.

I'm a big kaiju (rubber monster suit) fan, so I was really looking forward to this one. I intend to give it every chance to overcome the poor initial impression it made.

The Rivals For Catan (Mayfair, $20) is a rebooting of Catan: The Card Game, which I haven't played in ages. I've been able to play the basic game twice, and enjoyed it both times. I want to get about 6 more plays done before I review it, but thus far it's proving to be a quick, enjoyable slice of Catan. It seems to be better balanced than the original, and it was certainly easier to pick up and play with a novice gamer. Stay tuned for a full review

Pixy Cubes (BlueOrange, $16) is another clever offering from BlueOrange games. Think of it as a cube-based tangram. The game comes with 16 dice-sized cubes, with each face depicting a different pattern. These cubes must be assembled to match certain patterns depicted on a set of cards. It has a couple of options for competitive play, but it works just fine as a solo game.

On the videogame front, everyone in the house has been spending a lot of time with this guy:

Are You Elite?

E3 didn't deliver a great deal of new information on Activision's plans for their new Call of Duty Elite service, but the company that makes billions from the pay-to-play online game World of Warcraft is super-double-pinky-swearing that Call of Duty multiplayer will not go pay-to-play. If you listen very closely when Activision says this, you can almost hear the pause where they mutter under their breath: yet.

Activision is making so much money from their Call of Duty games that they needed to take over Scrooge McDuck’s money bin to store it all. (Rumor has it that certain Activision execs get to swim around in the three cubic acres of cash contained therein.) Naturally, when faced with such a staggering success, the question any good publishers must ask is: how can we make even more money from Call of Duty.

The answer came upon them like a Blizzard: a monthly premium service!

And that’s just what Call of Duty Elite will offer. For a monthly feed (rumored to be $9), you get a lot of social networking features and some ill-defined benefits. There are four channels: Compete, Connect, Compete, and Improve. Career is just a summary of your gaming activity on all games supported by Elite. Connect is CoD social networking, so you can create a profile and find other players with similar interests and perhaps post photos from Cute Overload and links to laughing baby videos. Compete is the channel for online events, tournaments, and prize opportunities. And Improve is kind of a tips and tutorial section. There’s also connectivity for Facebook, Twitter, and mobile devices.

Activision has created a studio, dubbed “Beachhead,” to create the new system. CEO Bobby Kotick has this to say about the project:

"Beachhead will create the best-in-class online community, exclusive content, and a suite of services to supercharge the online gaming experience like never before. The platform will support in-game integration and bring online experiences and console play together for the first time. The platform has been in development for over a year and we're very excited about the increased value we can bring to the community."
Activision CEO Bobby Kotick
If this all looks like a fancy leaderboard mashed together with Facebook, that's because it is. However, Activision will probably sweeten the pot by including new map packs, early and exclusive access to betas and demos, and other bonus content as part of the subscription. Map packs cost about $10 to $15 dollars, so although that’s some incentive, it’s not much. What, then, is the long-term plan for Elite?

Activision, of course, also owns Blizzard, which rakes in about $2 billion (no, that’s not a typo) each year from World of Warcraft fees. The trick lies in transplanting the pay-to-play service of a massively multiplayer online game to the multiplayer action arena. World of Warcraft gets people to pay a monthly fee by offering something unique, and it’s never been free. Call of Duty multiplayer is not unique, and it’s always been as free as dirt.

And therein lays the problem. Activision makes money on the initial game sale, and some more money selling additional map packs, but they have yet to discover a way to monetize online action gaming.

Rest assured, that state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Each new Call of Duty game averages 18-20 million sales. About 7 million people play Call of Duty online, and they average about an hour a day. That’s more time than people spend on Facebook or Twitter. And after the initial $60 sale, there is no money to be made from those users unless they choose to buy bonus content. In-game advertising has proven hugely unpopular with gamers, so the only way to make multiplayer gaming profitable is to charge for it.

The Elite service may be Activision’s way of testing the waters for pay-to-play online action gaming. All game publishers are looking to cut out the retail sector (or at least diminish their role) and move to digital delivery direct to the consumer. I haven’t installed a PC game from a disc in a couple of years, opting for 100% digital delivery. The future of console gaming will be similar, and services like Call of Duty Elite may lie at the heart of it. You’ll no longer buy a Call of Duty game: you’ll subscribe to a Call of Duty service.

Frankly, if they keep the quality and updates at the standards set by World of Warcraft, then I don’t see people having a lot of trouble with that model. It will, however, take a tectonic shift in the way gamers perceive the medium, and that will take time. It will also be incredibly risky. Publishers will need to ease gamers away from the idea of owning a game bought in a box at a retail establishment, and move towards a model akin to streaming video.

The best comparison is with the “Watch Now” features of Netflix, which allow people to stream movies straight to their televisions for a monthly fee. Netflix (and now Hulu) is tightly integrated into all the gaming systems, so gamers are already get used to the idea of streaming content.

I simply can’t imagine free multiplayer action gaming continuing indefinitely. Someone, at some point, is going to find a way to monetize it, and the candidate best equipped for the task is Activision. The Elite service goes into beta this summer, and should roll out with Modern Warfare 3 this fall. It will include support for MW3 and Black Ops. Once we see it in action, we’ll start to get a better sense of the future of the Call of Duty series, the Elite service, and the shape of multiplayer action gaming.