Friday, November 13, 2009

The Problem with Digital Distribution

I don't think any of us would try to argue that digital distribution isn't the future of games retail. However, at the moment, there are a few things holding it back, often making digital purchases notably inferior to regular retail. One of the issues is simply bandwidth (although this is far less of a problem in the first world) and another is transferability (digital purchases are often locked to your PC or console, whereas you can lend a disc to someone), but what really sets them back is price. By doing away with the middlemen, and almost all of the physical costs of the product (no boxes, manuals, discs, freight charges), digitally distributed titles should be cheaper than conventionally marketed ones. However, this is seldom the case, and the lack of discounting causes significant price discepancies once a game has been out for a while.

Regular readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me in general, will know I am fascinated with retrogaming and the history of videogames. A little while back I bought a copy of the Namco Museum Virtual Arcade collection for the Xbox 360. Essentially, this is a collection of 9 games previously released onto Xbox Live Arcade (when the disc is in the drive, you can even select them from the games menu as if they were XBLA titles installed on your hard drive), as well as 25 other retro titles from Namco's back catalogue.

When Namco Museum Virtual Arcade was released on disc, it was probably a full price (or close to full price) title, but over time the price has gone down, and I bought it for £12.99, which was about R155 at the time of purchase (or 1530 MSP for the sake of comparison). Despite the fact that many of the games released on XBLA have been there for years (according to Wikipedia Pac Man was released on XBLA in August 2006), I believe that all of them are still at the full price they were released at. Even assigning no value to the other 25 games not previous released on the Xbox, the 9 XBLA titles included on the Museum collection alone come to 4800 MSP (£40.80 / R486), which is a pretty poor comparison, even if you could argue that a person might not choose to buy Pac Man as well as Ms Pac Man, or that you probably wouldn't want to buy New Rally X at all.

The problem with digitally distributed titles is that they are immune to the regular pressures of retail, as there is no cost to holding stock and therefore no real need to keep it cycling. This is great for the retailer, but not so good for the consumer. If you look at Microsoft's Games on Demand initiative, many of the games loaded onto the service cost more than a boxed copy now does at retail. Valve's Steam service is great for indie games and the occasional weekend deal, but the standard pricing on new titles is often higher than a boxed version. Until this is sorted out, digital distribution is not going to be able to make substantial progress in supplanting the retail games market.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Selling For The Loss

I read a most bizarre story just now. As just about everyone should know, tomorrow is the second coming of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and all sorts of sales records are saying their last goodbyes before they are cruelly shattered (oddly enough, I'm not planning to buy a copy until some time in 2010, too many other things to play).

However, in the UK, there is a bit of drama because certain supermarkets are planning on selling the game below cost price, which is causing havoc with smaller retailers and threatening to destabilise the used market (which I don't really care about, as I'm not in favour of used games sales anyway). I don't really see the logic in doing this. I'm not stupid; I know about loss-leading, and I also understand how volume retailers can make money by having a negative cash cycle rather than through the size of their mark-up, but a game seems like a strange thing for a general retailer do this with. A modern game now costs so much that it would to justify a trip solely to pick up a copy - people might go into the store, pick up a game for less than cost, and leave without even considering buying anything else. This would be a particular risk for the so-called "core gamer" market, which must surely make up the largest part of MW2's inevitably massive sales. Perhaps these retailers will be short-stocking (at least relatively) the title to prevent too great a loss on it, in an attempt to get more consumers into the store than who would be able to buy it at the special price, consumers who probably would feel the need to buy something else to avoid making a trip out for nothing.

Unfortunately, this is not a "problem" we have to contend with in South Africa, as pretty much all brick and mortar stores are happy to charge the full RRP for games, with only online retailers like willing to provide a meaningful discount to RRP, and even then they don't provide any further discounting, even when games have been out for a long time.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The King of Fighters

2009 has been a pretty good year for fighting games, particularly 2D ones. It has seen Capcom release the critically acclaimed Street Fighter IV, the first new Street Fighter game in 9 years, it has seen Arc Systems release BlazBlue, the spiritual successor to the Guilty Gear series (which Arc somehow lost the rights to), which was also highy rated, even if it probably couldn't hope for the same level of commercial success. It has even seen a new King of Fighters game, which wasn't as well received, but at least they did redraw all the art in the game for the first time, well, probably ever.

However, the fighting game which I had been looking forward to most has been Tekken 6. In fact, considering it was released in the arcades in 2007 and a home port was always going to be released, it may have been the game which I have waited for the longest out of any I can remember. I have always had a particular fondness for the Tekken series. Tekken Tag Tournament was the primary reason I bought a PS2 back in 2001, so it is essentially what made me a console gamer.

My copy arrived on release day, and while I haven't had that much time to play it, just a shortish stint of versus play was enough to confirm that the Tekken series is still very much on form.

Tekken's big strength is the cast of characters. Each game has added new characters, without removing or diluting old ones, and Tekken 6 now has 40 playable characters, with the only real incidence of direct move sharing being that Eddy and Christie still appear to be carbon copies of each other. While the cast does have some serious weak points (Roger Jr, Panda, Mokujin), there are also an enormous number of really good ones. Character design is a personal thing, but I think Tekken has a stronger roster than Soul Calibur, and is far superior in this regard to the relatively staid characters of Virtua Fighter or the oddball cast of Street Fighter (there is a reason why the vast majority of casual SF players play Ryu or Ken).

In addition, they've continued to improve the transitional animations and update old move animations. I can still spot some vestiges of Tekken 2-era animation, but for the most part animations are newer, smoother and more impressive than before. It works really well with the motion blur effect they've introduced in T6, which smoothes out slow moves, and emphasises the fast, powerful strikes which characterise the series. They've added a fairly substantial number of new moves to each character (remember that this game is essentially 3 updates from Tekken 5, there was the Dark Resurrection update to Tekken 5, the base Tekken 6, and then the home version is effectively a port of Bloodline Rebellion, the update to Tekken 6) without removing old ones like they did in Soul Calibur 3 and 4, in which certain characters were quite badly denuded.

I tried to play a bit of the Scenario Campaign mode (the Tekken Force-style beat-em-up they've included with the console port) last night and to my surprise, I ended up watching what seemed like nearly half an hour of intro and cutscene before I even got to start playing (although I did think the prologue, which recaps the Mishima storyline from Tekken 1 through to the start of Tekken 6, was quite good). I think they've missed the point here. A Tekken Force mode should be something you can jump into, preferably with a friend, and annihilate scores of identikit enemies for a bit before going back to the core fighting mode. I don't think we need hours of cutscenes showing characters interact and elaborate on the plot. A rendered movie on starting and finishing the story mode is all (some would even say more than) a fighting game needs in terms of exposition. If this mode is the reason for Namco's painfully slow conversion of the arcade game, then they've wasted quite a lot of their time, especially seeing as the mode still seems ugly and awkward compared to a genuine third person action game.

However, to a fighting game fan it doesn't really make that much of a difference as long as the core fighting is so strong, and because of this I think, for me at least, Tekken 6 appears to be the best of the current generation of fighters. I've read some criticisms that it doesn't do enough to move the game forward, but I actually appreciate that, in an attempt to reinvent themselves Namco haven't taken a step backwards (as happened to an extent with Soul Calibur 4). Essentially, Tekken 6 may be more of the same, but it is more of the things that made Tekken good in the first place.