Monday, August 10, 2009

We like 1 vs 100, and also, Hackers Suck

Hackers just seem to ruin everything sometimes. Sure, hacking and homebrew have some legitimate purposes and have even pushed companies to make popular options once only available through grey market channels legitimate through official channels. All sorts of opinions exist on the subject - the consumer right to handle their property as they please versus what corporations feel is legitimate use of the product for their reasons. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn't. It clearly does not make sense when the hacking is done with the intent to give one video game player a distinct, unfair advantage over another.

Hacking video games at home to re-enable "lost" features (or hot coffee) can be an exiting adventure into the development process and the experimental worlds of what once was. Doing this in the days of offline gaming was a perfectly legitimate venture for most, as it was kept solely to the console it was on and affected no one else. But beginning with the earliest editions of Pokémon, hacking started to become a problem to those who wanted to play legitimately. It boiled down to making the playing field uneven and took the fun out of the game. Carrying the analogy further, video game hacking is like taking steroids in sports. It ruins the game for everyone who wants to play on a fair, competitive basis. (We should take a moment to note mods for titles such as Team Fortress II are not considered hacks for the purposes of this piece as their intent is to expand upon the title, versus simply grant an advantage to one player over another.)

The need for fairness becomes of even greater importance when the reward for playing fair is so lucrative and the process of actually winning is so conspicuous that the game restricts the frequency any one player can hold the spotlight or win a large reward. The example we point to prominently is the Xbox Live implementation of 1 vs 100. Players play an "extended" mode through the week to build up their stats for a live broadcast of the "show", complete with host and high levels of audience interaction. The stats players build up can influence their odds of competing during the "Live" show in the spotlight as "The One", who can win up to US $150.00 in Microsoft Points, or a member of "The Mob", who can win up to $25 in games and/or Microsoft Points. (There are other positions to play in during Live, however we suggest you pick the game up for more information). With real-world prizes on the line and a desire to give everyone a fair shot at the winnings, Microsoft has been taking painstaking steps to keep the game fair and the hackers out.

Apparently this security was broken on the UK version of 1 vs 100 if current breaking reports are to be believed. (Note the show follows an identical format for the US and UK editions.) In short, a group of Xbox Live gamers claim to have hacked the game and been "The One" up to four times and in the mob consistently. The legitimacy of these claims lies in question, however there are a few points to consider that may suggest the validity of these claims are more than just someone blowing smoke over Live.

First, we have the system itself. Microsoft claims being "The One" more than once per season of 1 vs 100 is not allowed. This is something that is likely enforced by some strict security measures, given the responsibility to paying advertisers to keep gamers interested by way of fair odds. (Yes, even on a Microsoft product good security is known to happen.) Historically, Microsoft has been very strict in maintaining the fairness of Xbox Live in the interest of creating an enjoyable (and lucrative) experience by banning consoles known to contain mod chips or cheating devices, or consoles that may not have cheating devices but that have been used with a cheating device in the past. Beyond the hardware, Microsoft has taken a very simple, but very powerful action by simply marking gamertags known to be associated with cheating. Users handle the rest of this by kicking known cheaters from game sessions - even pausing record breaking matches to remove them. The combination of these steps has resulted in Xbox Live accumulating a reputation for being a fair, enjoyable place to play in, worth the cost of admission.

Continuing on then, let's compare the claims of the hackers to what has been stated by Microsoft. First we come to the claim the hackers have hacked the slot of "The One". A key problem here is the hackers have claimed to have been the one with different gamertags, all starting with the word "Defensive". Speaking on a technical level, this claim is not true at face value - no one has been "The One" multiple times. Different, but very similar gamertags have. Thus, it is incredibly unlikely anyone hacked into the Xbox Live servers to actually influence the game on a technical level in terms of game code, server processes, etc.

The next claim the hackers have made is having gotten into the mob several times. As noted before, this is allowed and expected to happen, despite the low odds of it occuring. The "Defensive" gamertags getting into the mob several times would therefore be quite normal.

So are the hackers blowing smoke? Probably not. Speaking as a player of 1 vs 100 who has seen over 4,000,000 knockouts and answered tens of thousands of questions, I have noticed some definite patterns in the game with regards to both players and random selection. For instance, you definitely get a feel for how "dumb" or smart the crowd/mob can be at times and where those limits lie. Yes, four people don't know what the McDonald's logo is - shocking at first, but something you see from time to time as a pattern. "The One" generally lasts nine to eleven questions on their turn in the spotlight. Certain avatars tend to show up in the mob after being "The One", and vice versa. These avatars are generally of the folk you tend to see in the highest lifetime stats and highest accuracy/speed results of the game. I'm not doing anything special to see how the game works, it's just something you notice if you play regularly and are paying a reasonable amount of attention to the entire game versus just the questions.

Our theory? It is entirely possible these "hackers" have not actually "hacked" anything but have just figured out how the game works and learned to exploit it. It is also entirely possible quite a few other folk have figured out how the game works and exploited that knowledge from time to time. Does this mean Microsoft is to blame? Not in strict terms, but they absolutely ought to take steps to keep selection algorithms as fresh and random as possible. It is an easy fix and keeps the game going fairly.

So perhaps it isn't strictly video game hackers who suck, but instead the schmucks who just can't play fair. The guys who attempt to get the upper hand by doing what it takes, by hook or by crook. Well, I would like to tell you something. You suck! Stop ruining my games! If your entire existence is based upon having an unfair advantage over others and affecting how they enjoy the fun things in life, go fuck a sheep! Seriously.

This is Digital Stardust, signing off.

P.S. If you would like to play a (fair) game of 1 vs 100, both authors of this blog are regular participants of the beta season's shows on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Hit us up in the comments for our gamertags.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Market - She's Dead, Jim. Or is She?

You may have noticed Digital Stardust has gone mute for several months now. This is no accident. The intent of DiS is to comment on the game industry as a whole, with a focus on trends and topics affecting large portions of the community - developers and gamers alike - but when the industry stagnates, there is only so much you can say before you have become a broken record. Rather than become a site riding a dead horse, we've simply gone quiet in the meantime. Plans are in the works to change the situation and provide engaging content, however these things take time, so your understanding is appreciated.

The time has come to momentarily break the silence and speak to the staleness that is slowly creeping through the industry, and possibly discover who could hold the blame for the situation the industry sits in. The results may surprise you, they may anger you, but they'll certainly get you thinking, even if you don't agree.

What is causing the video games industry to stagnate? Before you can answer this question it is important to note the industry as a whole has not come to a grinding halt. Companies such as PopCap Games are doing very well with their famous casual titles such as Peggle and Bejeweled. The stagnation does exist, however, with powerhouse companies such as EA and Activision reporting slower sales and releasing fewer blockbuster titles this year as compared to years past. But what is causing this? Console and software pricing? The poor economy? Or is it something else entirely?

The first argument in our discussion-gone-monologue sits squarely at the console price. Console price has become a hot topic of discussion among developers as available dollars to purchase consoles and increase total number of potential software buyers has decreased due to the poor economy. It just makes little sense to the unemployed consumer to purchase a pricey console, so the cost of entry has become of increasing importance to developers. Yet, the cost of entry has sat squarely in the same position since each of the current-gen consoles launched. The sorest point is named "PlayStation 3", exacerbated only by the moves of Microsoft as they position the Xbox 360 as the biggest bang for the buck on the block. Microsoft has done a good job of managing the 360 SKUs available to the consumer from the get-go, charging less for systems with fewer accessories and more for systems with more accessories, but keeping the basic console playability the same. Sony by comparison has removed functionality from their system in an effort to reduce cost, something the consumer is less concerned with when they see the system they've been eying does less for the same price. Nintendo makes a profit for each Wii sold, but they've attracted a market segment previously not known to exist, which allows the Kyoto-based developer to keep console prices the same due to their current market segment not being accustomed to price drops.

No matter where you sit in the console interest matrix, the fact remains the fun boxes are pricey machines. Developers know this and have been increasing pressure on manufacturers to drop the price, especially Sony. It is no small potatoes when the president of the company known for Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft delivers a clear threat of stopping console development for the PlayStation 3 if the console does not become more accessible to the average gaming consumer. Square-Enix has taken notice in North America and Europe, by developing the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII for the Xbox 360, breaking the PlayStation 3's exclusivity on the title and marking the first time in the franchise's history a title will launch on multiple consoles. The Land of the Rising Sun is also showing troublesome signs for the market, as console sales in general are down 25% year over year, with a large portion of this being attributed to the high cost of the PlayStation 3. Sony may have billions to recoup from the Cell processor, but their current strategy is strangling the market in general. To cope, current console lifecycles are being extended (newer hardware over time becomes older hardware, which becomes less expensive to produce and develop for) and older technologies are being extended (case in point, the Wii is a souped-up GameCube).

What about the global economic recession? Without a question this is a factor in the current equation adding up to the market situation. The average consumer is seeing a decrease in work or the same pay in a market where prices are higher than they ever have been, in effect creating less buying power power per dollar. What you could buy with a $1 now requires $2 or you get less for that same $1 (14oz. Coca-Cola, anyone?). Console prices are higher than they ever have been, but even those with the same total dollars available from before the recession are seeing their overall total effective buying power decreased, reducing the market's accessibility to them. This reduced buying power manifests itself through stronger sales of software for consoles already owned and fewer pieces of software sold for newer consoles. In short, consumers are getting more choosy about their games because they want the biggest bang for their buck. Developers often develop "throw away titles" - titles created with a small budget and a big license to generate sales with a high profit margin, which they use to fund their AAA-class blockbusting titles, however sales of "throw aways" are through the floor, reducing available R&D resources. This explains why only a handful of established franchises are turning out titles in the current market, as opposed to a more balanced mix of new franchises and established ones - with less money coming in developers are not as willing to risk their limited capital on a new franchise. Fewer new faces on the shelf create the impression of a stagnating market in the consumer's mind, leading to a circular effect of reduced interest in spending money on gaming as a whole.

So is the market stagnating? If you count the slower pace at which flashy new gaming consoles and technology driving them is being trotted out, the strategy of developers to "play it safe" by sticking to established franchises and invest in fewer new ones, and reduced console and software sales as a whole, yes. There are a few shining examples where the recession has not hit, such as the iPhone App Store and casual gaming provided by companies such as PopCap, but the market in general is down and slowing. Consoles are pricey, dollars buy less, and software sales are on a slow slide. But is there a possible underlying cause to even these reasons? Did something sew the seeds of market slowdown even before the global recession hit?

There might be.

What is this possible underlying cause? Us, the consumer. Let's back up to 2004, when the PlayStation 2 was in an intense battle with the Xbox. The PlayStation 2 was an established powerhouse with a massive install base in the millions and heavy hitting titles blowing even the highest expectations out of the water. The Xbox was making waves in North America by releasing titles so gorgeous, yet playable, even though it was never expected the console would beat the PS2 (that honor was saved for the 360 vs PS3 race). Developers were releasing titles to great, beautiful success coated in a layer of eye-candy.

If you have a good thing, doing more of it will be even better, right? This became a persistent cry from gamers - we want MORE beautiful titles, we want MORE powerful systems, and we want MORE fun. Manufactures responded by doing just that, creating powerful multi-core processors requiring billions in investment dollars. Gamers got what they wanted, but they had to pay the piper for it, and a lot of them weren't ready. The development investments needed to be recouped and the consoles were priced accordingly, bringing us into the pricey console era that exists today. The $400 console is a result of the demands of consumers and gamesmanship of the previous era, but at $400.

So the next time you're visiting your local game retailer, take some time to consider where you're going to vote with your money. Do you want the $60 title, or might it be worth waiting for the title to become less expensive? What console do you want to purchase it for? The less expensive ones, or the more expensive ones? Digital download or physical disc? Memory unit or hard drive? In an era when developers are watching the market closely, they have, they can, and they will know when sales increase due to price drops. If it becomes a recurring trend, developers will have to rethink what the public is willing to pay for their gaming fix. Instant gratification has its short term expense, for sure, but the long term effects may be more important than ever.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tales of Playstation 3 Purchasing

I went to go buy a Playstation 3. It's still $400. 2 years later. I did not buy my Playstation 3. Way to go Sony.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Breaking Info on the Presidential Wii

Digital Stardust is normally a blog where we don't try to write the news of the gaming day - that's something you can go to BILLIONS of other places for. We just specialize in stepping back and writing about the larger picture, for the most part.

But when hot news about the Presidential Wii breaks, we talk about it.

Actually, we just link you to it.

I SO want his friend code.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Playstation 3 - The New Dreamcast

The economy is in a downturn. EA, Microsoft, Nintendo and even Disney are reporting down profits or planned layoffs. The world is on its ear, it seems. Then there’s Sony. EA looks like they’re set for smooth sailing compared to the former electronics giant. Today the company reported a 95% drop in profits compared to last year. This is not a normal piece of news. CEOs and executives are often removed from the companies they lead for reports like this. People killed themselves in the 1930s for such news. Due quick publication of this article, Sony has yet to show any reaction to this news from its earlier publish today.

Driving this news is simply a case of Sony’s being out of touch with the market. The Playstation and Playstation 2 are some of the best consoles to ever hit the market and new PS2s still sell to this day. The platforms are easy to program for from a designer standpoint, and the install-base (which is used to determine potential sales) is incredibly large. Sony made the bad assumption of gamers just simply moving straight over to the most expensive console of all time – one hell of a gamble on just the Playstation name. They also exhibiting some of the poorest business decision making skills witnessed in business.

Historically the market does not support any console over $399 – each attempt has failed. The Philips CD-i, TurboGrafx-16, NeoGeo AVS, and 3DO all died summary deaths based on the price point limiting the install base. Sony is also echoing a bad business decision repeatedly stated as the reason Sega died a manufacturer’s death – supporting too many consoles. Upon the launch of the Dreamcast a decade ago, Sega was still manufacturing and supporting the Mega System, Mega Drive, Sega CD, 32x, Pico, Saturn, and Game Gear consoles in combination for various markets around the globe. Splitting resources so many ways drives inefficiency and spreads resources thinly. Sony is supporting the PSOne, PS2, PS3, and PSP – when history shows only two consoles is what a company can support while still achieving significant financial success, as Microsoft and Nintendo do.

Also driving Sony’s severe downturn is the cost of investing in the cel processor. Some investors have indicated the company many never make a profit on the processor and any feasible plan would require a significantly longer product lifecycle for the PS3 or a recycling of the processor for a theoretical Playstation 4. If this is done Sony cannot afford to market or let any sort of recycled product image enter the market or the console will suffer.

But gamers rarely care about the business factors and historical trends associated with games – most only know of the premature death of the Dreamcast and the Sonic franchise. A majority of gamers care only about what the console can do for them, how much space it wants in the living room real estate puzzle, and how much it costs. Cost has already been addressed – it is simply too high for historical trends but it is also too high when comparing it to what the console some of the true factors involving console sales come to light.

In an era of companies pushing high definition gaming and multifunction devices, gamers want consoles that play not only new titles, but their older titles as well. When deciding for one console or two, one will always win. Sony’s decision to remove Playstation 2 compatibility all currently-sold Playstation 3 models has left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. PS3s that can play PS2 titles do a fantastic job of upscaling older titles and adapting them for HD on the fly and it once served as a significant selling point to potential buyers of the hardware. With this feature removed, gamers are not nearly as interested in placing an entirely new console into their entertainment centers without removing another. Yes, PSOne compatibility is there, but the PS2 era is where Sony’s titles began to shine and garner their dedicated following. Removing this option to play PS2 titles was just plain stupid when you consider Sony’s decision to cash in on the Playstation brand name. Couple this with the high cost for such a small usable library, and you’ve got a recipe for poor sales.

So is Playstation 3 the new Dreamcast? Yes. Given Sony’s continued game of making decisions and correcting mistakes later versus anticipating and invigorating the market, it is likely the powerhouse console will likely die off completely a la Dreamcast, see some drastic hardware changes, or be refreshed as a different console. Trying to let Sony know how to change is like screaming at a brick wall, so I won’t even try it. Anyone want some popcorn? I’m going to watch the show.