[Missing Post] The Dark Horse in the Race for Our TV

by Michael in ,

What follows is a "missing post". I wrote all of this before WWDC this year in June with predictions for exactly what Nintendo has just announced (or at least how Nintendo is in a unique position for it). While laziness got the best of me, so I never completed the post, I'm going to go ahead and post this right now while Nintendo is still announcing just as evidence that I already had it written. Obviously it's pretty bare bones, as I tend to jot down notes before going back and filling in details and actual words for a post. I haven't touched anything since Nintendo's event started.

Everyone is, and has been, talking about the future, mystical, this changes everything Apple TV. WWDC 2012 is right around the corner and the press has worked itself into such a tizzy over this hypothetical product that if (and I believe when) Apple doesn't announce some new revolutionary our minds just eploded because of how intensely this will change the world overnight television or related device during its main Keynote, Apple's stock price will take its (usual and very temporary) hit, the press will wonder where the product is, and everyone will continue the cycle of excitement until Apple's next event. This is exactly what happened with the iPhone. People expected it for years before it came out. Then it did and changed everything.

The thing is, the TV market is different from the phone market.

 Content vs device (TV vs phones)

Take time to change things (content incumbents)

Most successful in the hybrid world (Xbox 360)

App model for Apple TV (Input is problem: hypotheical iphone/ipod touch/iPad as input--problems are cost, ubiquity. No point to software using both if nobody has both.)

Surprise possibility (Wii U picture - highlight TV button on Game Pad)

What the Wii U has that nobody else does. (Cheap, software updatable/downloadable, platform with intuitive *and* "high definition" input mechanisms built in. Warm "Wii" name which non-technical people have already invited into their homes and aren't intimidated by. They can go buy "the next Wii". Extra input devices for games already in peoples' homes. Built-in, ready-to-go, "Angry Birds" style casual games in "Nintendoland" which anyone can play--familiarize with mascots and then have an included games console for much better games than an Apple TV could manage. Plus easy ports from 5+ years of Xbox 360 and PS3 that, if volume of Wii Us are sufficient, can be easy money at lower prices for publishers/developers on *MUCH* better games than anything Apple could create could do. Cutting edge games on PS4/Xbox 720/PC. Less advanced but not at all input-bottleknecked "real" games on Wii U with non-intimidating platform also being able to be picked up for people who don't/hardly want to game at all.)

Microsoft and Sony already want to do this because there isn't enough money just in "real games" for them. Nintendo isn't competing as  

Obstacles: (Nintendo itself. Partner deals. Stubbornness. Allowing cheaper 3rd party games.)

Biggest obstacle: Nintendo making content deals with the essential movie and TV content creators. Interfaces for accessing media.

Biggest benefit: Touch screen controller always available to control TV stuff, no need to clutter content display to get media info, browse media store. Again: bundled with device.

Botanicula will have you dancing in your seat and smiling like a child

by Michael in

The "adventure game" or "point and click adventure" genre once dominated the computer game landscape with such beloved entries as Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, Monkey Island, and more. The games generally had you guide characters through a scenario by clicking on objects and people in order to solve puzzles and move an adventure story forward. The funny dialogue and engaging stories combined with the puzzles in the best games of the genre to great critical and financial success for decades. At some point, though, the genre began to fade into nonexistence. Many who grew up playing computer games mourned the death of a beloved genre By the turn of the century, most people playing video games might not have even been aware of the genre and many of us who were aware of its disappearance shed not a single tear.

I was one of those people who had no love for the genre. You see, the adventure game genre had problems. Many of the problems were simply a product of the times in which the games were produced, just as is true of most games past a certain age. The biggest problem the genre had was essentially unique to the genre and made games of this style nigh impenetrable: they didn't really make any sense. Even among the greatest adventure games it seemed to simply be a requirement that puzzles have at least a few solutions which would not make very much sense even once discovered by the player. Solutions were often nearly imposisble to discover. Instead of thinking through such a game critically to solve puzzles, a player's general strategy would inevitably become to simply click every single object on every single screen until the story moved forward. For a player like myself who thoroughly enjoys the best the genre purportedly offered, this frustration with the complete lack of game coherency made the genre one that would not be missed.

A few years ago, with the advent of cheap distribution of PC games on the internet, the genre began to resurface. Those nostalgic for games of the past began to make new games in the genre and nostalgic players bought in. After the near-death of the genre, the new creators began to update game play and game logic to appeal to a modern audience. Continued commercial success in the genre among indie game developers should be sufficient evidence to show the genre has been reborn. Still, the ugly "click everything" logic manages to rear its head from time to time. While clicking everything on the screen isn't in and of itself bad, it is bad when the player becomes rewarded by nonsensical behavior from understood objects. This is the gameplay equivalent of the uncanny valley. In this case, even when clicking on the successful solution, the observed behavior is just far enough outside the expected behavior that it causes frustration or irritation. Each time I begin another adventure game, I brace myself for the inevitable irritation stemming from objects working in ways that could not possibly be predicted by the player. Aminita Design's two previous games, Samorost 2 and Machinarium, both were guilty of this from time to time, so I braced myself yet again.

Thankfully, Botanicula is a wonder. It so aggressively distances itself from our experiences and immerses itself in an original fantastical world that the above discussed problems never have a chance to arrive. The game revels in its uniqueness, with its characters odd blends of plants and animals which defy succint description. The creatures in the game have little telltale traits which explain some very base level of their behavior, but most objects are so odd that unexpected quirkiness is never a cause for frustration but instead brings gleeful discovery. The game never forgets that its strength is its quirkiness, using the player's what-does-this-thing-do impulse to encourage him or her to, well, click everything. The game's triumph comes in making the same exactly gameplay present in other games infinitely more engaging. The same actions become endearing rather than vexing. From beginning to end, the game is simply fun and drives the player to keep clicking everything. Even more significantly: Once a puzzle has been solved, the player gets a feeling of satisfaction because the solutions make perfect sense in context of the oddly fascinating world on display. The accompanying artwork and sound effects mesh with the entertaining quirkiness of the gameplay to great effect, with the joy of the game amplified by a tremendously wonderful soundtrack that is probably impossible not to smile at and dance to. This soundtrack is really, truly, incredible in terms of evoking emotion at exactly the right times. It is simply joyous to listen to.

Once all the pieces have been added into a single whole only one conclusion can be drawn. In Botanicula, Amanita Design has executed a perfect entry into the adventure genre. In fact, it has put together the first point and click adventure game I think can easily be recommended even to people who never play games. All a person has to be able to do to enjoy it is click.

If you find yourself engaged by the game's aesthetic as shown in its trailer (found at Botanicula's offical website) I can easily recommend the purchase, currently set for $10.

You can buy from these sources:


My take: Prospective iPad vs Vita hardware sales for March 2012

by Michael in , ,

Update (3/19/12): Follow-up at the bottom with more specific hardware sales predictions and the associated required software sales ratio.

Earlier today Ben Kuchera, formerly of Ars Technica, now of The Penny Arcade Report, tweeted this:

Wanting to respond with a from-the-hip guess, I posted this:

I was surprised to get a response from Ben:

Seeing as I love having to back up my thoughts (especially if it turns out my assumptions are wrong--after all, why stay wrong about something if I can help it?), I decided to do a little bit of digging. I quickly realized replying on twitter wasn't going to cut it.

Before I start, I do want to say a few things:

  1. I am not a game journalist, or any type of journalist. I'm an amateur who just likes talking about technology, games, and business. If I'm wrong, please let me know, but try not to chew my head off as if I'm leading people astray.
  2. It's really hard to find accurate numbers for things unless you are a business subscribing to NPD's numbers. I don't. I am taking information I'm finding from sources which seem to be giving reasonably accurate numbers. If they're wrong, I'm sorry.
  3. My goal here is really just to see if my response to Ben was a reasonable prediction to make, not to have an A-ha! I'm right and you're all wrong! moment. I have no vested interest in being "right".

Before I start giving links, I want to give my thought process for why my gut reaction was what I tweeted to Ben. The first part of my tweet simply says the iPad will sell many more hardware units than the Vita in March (despite the iPad releasing just today). Honestly, that's simply because I'm pretty certain the iPad has been consistently selling in numbers that dwarf anything video game consoles have ever done. The second part of my tweet will be harder to back, but stems from my assumption that early Vita buyers are so-called "hardcore" gamers who buy many expensive games at retail, while the iPad's buyers are probably not buying the device primarily for gaming--or at least probably not an immense proportion of those buyers. When I typed "This month's Vita buyers...", I meant to imply focusing on these particular people on a per-person/per-device basis, not total. My precise meaning was "This specific month's Vita buyers will, over the course of the device's lifetime, average more money spent on games than the people who purchase the new iPad in March will." That said, I didn't word the statement clearly and can see how it would be easily interpreted as "This month's Vita buyers, in total, will spend more money on games over the course of the Vita's lifetime than this month's new iPad model buyers will." Those are very different statements. I don't want to seem like I'm backpedaling, though, so let's explore both interpretations!

On to what I can dig up!

Argument Part 1 - Hardware

The first iPad was released just 2 years ago. Through Apple's Fiscal Q1 2012, which ended December 31 (less than 2 years of sales, if you're counting) Apple had sold a total of 55 Million iPads (Transcript of Apple CEO Tim Cook's keynote at Goldman Sachs). It sold 15.43 Million iPads in just Q1 2012 (Apple's First Quarter Press Release). That's just one quarter. Yes, it's true that's the big holiday quarter--but it's one quarter nonetheless.

The PS2 and the DS are the best selling video game systems of all time. So let's see how their sales stack up to the iPad 1 & 2 so far. According to Sony itself, the best quarter for PS2 sales since April 2006 (unfortunately Sony doesn't list quarters before that) was 6.7 Million units in Q3 of Fiscal Year 2006. The second best since 2006 was 5.4 Million units. Both of those quarters were holiday quarters. Additional data from Sony (navigable to on the same site): The PS3's best holiday quarters were both 6.5 Million units and the PSP's was 5.7 Million.

According to Wikipedia (fortunately, the sales in the chart are all linked to Nintendo's official PDF reports, so they're checkable), the best ever quarter for the DS, DS Lite, DSi, and DSi XL combined was the holiday quarter of 2008 with 11.89 Million units shipped that quarter. That was the same quarter in which the DS set the US record for most video game system sales in a single month (3.04 Million in December, versus the PS2's previous record of 2.7 Million). The Wikipedia chart only lists life-to-date numbers, so I had to subtract the previous quarter's number from the one I was checking to find a given quarter's sales.

The numbers aren't perfectly apples to apples comparisons (pun not intended). We don't really have holiday quarter sales for earlier in the PS2's life while it was at its sales peak, so the PS2's data isn't incredibly useful. The DS seems to have exceeded the PS2's sales peaks, though, and still fell short of the iPad. Suffice it to say the Vita is not currently likely to be approaching sales comparable to the PS2 and DS during their peak years. So it's spretty safe to assume the iPad will outsell the Vita by a wide margin, even with just half the month to work with.

I've spent all this time so far defending the part of my argument that nearly no one would contest. Honestly, I just did that because it was fun. Now for the truly arguable part:

Argument Part 2 - Software

As I said before, there are two different possible interpretations from the software part of my tweet. First is that this month's Vita purchasers will average more total lifetime money spent on games for their Vitas than this month's new iPad purchasers will average in total lifetime money spent on games for their iPads. Second is that this month's Vita purchasers will total more lifetime money spent on games for their Vitas than this month's new iPad purchasers will total in money spent on games for their iPads.

Back to Sony we go for software numbers. If we look at PSP software sales since 2006, we get the best single-year sales at 54.7 Million pieces of software (2006--PSP software sales decreased from then on). The same year had nowhere near the highest hardware sales for the system (at just 9.6 Million units), so 2006 easily had the highest Hardware/Software ratio for the PSP from 2006 onward: 5.7 games per system sold. Keep in mind, this isn't lifetime. Unfortunately, it's also just academic because we don't have launch numbers--so those games are being purchased by people purchasing 2006 hardware as well as people who purchased hardware in 2004 and 2005.

To help me illustrate something, though, let's look at the PS3's numbers--which Sony thankfully does have launch numbers for.

  • The PS3's 2006-2010 per-year hardware numbers are: 3.5, 9.1, 10.1, 13, and 14.3 Million units sold. So the systems sold per year have increased each year over year.
  • Its software has followed the same pattern so far, with 13.3, 57.9, 103.7, 115.6, and 147.9 Million software units sold in the same respective years.
  • That makes the attach rates for 2006-2010 into 3.8, 6.36, 10.26, 8.89, and 10.34 pieces of software sold per system sold each year.

Again: That doesn't mean everyone who purchased a PS3 in 2010 bought an average of 10.34 pieces of software. Early system purchasers are still buying software for the system. This is just giving you an idea of what the numbers look like so far. The numbers become more useful if we look at cumulative attach rates.

  • Cumulative hardware to-date for each year from 2006-2010 comes out to 3.5, 12.6, 22.7, 35.7, and 50 Million PS3s.
  • Cumulative software-to-date for each year for 2006-2010 is 13.3, 71.2, 174.9, 290.5, 438.4 pieces of PS3 software sold.
  • So the cumulative attach rate for each year is: 3.8, 5.65, 7.7, 8.14, 8.77 average pieces of software sold lifetime for every single PS3 sold through the end of fiscal year 2010.

It's probably possible to do some math with those numbers to determine sales of early adopters versus later console buyers. I started doing the math and confused myself (I was too lazy to get out a pen, paper, my graphing calculator, Excel, etc.). My hunch (which I think is probably pretty accurate) is that people who buy consoles early are more likely to buy a large collection of games than people who buy them later.

So for the PSP we have that 5.7 ratio number and for the PS3 we have an 8.77 number, both of which I think are lower than the ratios applied specifically to early purchasers. What do you expect the average selling price for PSP software is? I'll use $9 as an arbitrary pessimistic guess. So that would mean an average of $51.3 spent on games per PSP owner assuming just a $9 average software price (highly unlikely for early adopters--after all they had to buy at least one launch game at $35+). A (in my opinion) more realistic average game price for launch PSP buyers of $15 takes the total they spent on games to $85.5 if we limit them to that 5.7 ratio (which is, frankly, probably unfairly low when we're talking about launch buyers of the PSP who didn't know about the hacked firmware piracy/emulation market that would crop up later).

The PS3? If we took the cumulative 8.77 average software/hardware attach and multiply it by just $25 as average spent per game, we hit $219.25 spent on software per system. Again, we're not skewing for early adopters here.

Besides, even if the 2006 purchasers never purchased another game for their systems, they still each bought 3.8 games at launch-system pricing (there were only 2 quarters in FY2006 for the PS3, and not even for the entirety of those quarters). If you estimate low and say each of those games were purchased during the launch window at $40 (versus the standard $60 launch price), that's a bare minimum of $228 paid for PS3 games per owner in 2006 alone. If any of those initial system purchasers ever buy another game, that average goes up.

How many new iPad owners do you think will spend $228 on games alone for their iPads? Now consider that's an intentionally very low estimate for early PS3 buyers. Sure, the average selling price of games on the Vita is lower, but it's still very much gamers buying a game system with the intent to spend money on games. The numbers might be lower, but the lifetime average will certainly pass $200, if not significantly higher for these launch window buyers. After all, these numbers just go through 2010. At least some of those launch PS3 buyers are still buying games.

Realisticaly, the attach numbers for the PS Vita will probably be somewhere between the PSP and the PS3. The attach rate for the PSP was notoriously abysmal with many people buying the PSP just to crack the firmware and play free games on it. Handhelds have never had the same attach rates as home consoles, though, so we probably shouldn't expect PS3 numbers. Even so, I find it doubtful that the average new iPad buyer will end up spending multiple hundreds of dollars on games alone. (It's certainly plausible the new iPad owners will beat out Vita owners on average dollars spent on software when you combine all iOS software categories, but we're just talking about games here.)

So yes, I do believe my statement was true if we're talking averages. Totals though... that's another issue.

The total is, obviously, equal to the previously discussed average money spent on games per device times the number of hardware units sold. Because I'm fairly certain the iPad will outsell the Vita on hardware while the Vita's owners will spend more per-owner on games long-term, the issue becomes ratios. If the new iPad sells twice as many units (in half the time--since it's only on sale for half the month), its owners only have to average half the long term game dollars spent as the Vita owners. This is a tossup, as I have absolutely no projection as to what the ratio of new iPad to Vita hardware sales will be for March.

My gut, though, is to say the brand-new-as-of-March-2012 Vita owners will still end up spending more on Vita games than the brand-new-as-of-March-2012 new iPad owners will end up spending on iPad games long-term. My gut tells me this because, well, I'm an early adopter in both realms. (Luckily, I also keep all my receipts from iTunes and Amazon!) I have a 3DS on which I've actually only purchased a handful of games (only 3, in fact, so far) which I've spent a collective $116 on. I've also had an original iPad since launch as well as an iPhone 3G since launch, replaced by a current 4S. I play and purchase far more games than the average iOS owner does--and I'd bet I spend far more money on apps, and the game subgenre of apps, than the average early adopter does. iOS games are so cheap, though, that my grand total of money spent on iOS games including many I purchased for iPhone--and duplicates for which I've purchased both iPhone and iPad versions, totals $135 since I purchased my iPhone 3G in June 2008. So most of 4 years later, my total iOS game purchases are a little higher than the money I've spent on games for the 3DS--which I purchased 5 months ago.

It is highly unlikely so-called "non-gamers" will spend money buying games on their new iPads at anywhere near the rate I have, while the people buying Vita's right now are exclusively gamers buying the system so that they can purchase games for it.

So while it's highly likely the total amount of money spent on iOS games will exceed that of the Vita (or the Vita + 3DS combined), I think this particular half month of new iPad buyers will probably still total less money spent on iPad games than this particular month of Vita buyers will total money spent on Vita games long-term.

As I said before, this isn't my job and I don't have more reliable long-term data, so I did the best I could. I'd love to be able to look at guaranteed accurate quarter-by-quarter sales for all these pieces of hardware (and respective software) since launch to get more accurate predictions. I am aware that I was switching between real numbers and conjecture, but I tried to clearly label which was which. Still, I think this was enough effort to ensure my predictions and opinions are reasonable.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go play Mass Effect 3 on my Xbox 360 (with the iPad Mass Effect 3 Datapad app on hand, of course). If I finish this weekend it'll mean I can finally get around to reading Ben's article about the series' apparently divisive ending.

→ A new standard in design: in-depth with the PlayStation Vita

by Michael in ,

A new standard in design: in-depth with the PlayStation Vita

A small snippet from Ars Technica's thorough look at the hardware (added emphasis mine):

It's a confusing time in the world of mobile and portable gaming. Consumers seem to be moving away from the idea that they need an entirely separate device to play games on the go, settling for cheap, generally simple touchscreen games on their cell phones and tablets. Nintendo, following up the insanely successful DS system that rested on a seemingly gimmicky double screen design, added a newer glasses-free 3D gimmick to its Nintendo 3DS—only to see extremely slow sales force it into a premature price drop. Sony's PlayStation Portable, meanwhile, has carved out a niche for itself as a serious gamer's system, especially in Japan, but is beginning to show its age as a system designed in the pre-smartphone era.

For the new PlayStation Vita, Sony responded to this confusion by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the system. For hardcore gamers, there are two analog sticks—a first for a portable system—and a gigantic screen loaded with pixels. For casual players, there's the now-ubiquitous touchscreen as well as a unique rear touch panel to enable new tactile, touchy-feely gameplay. The Vita has two cameras, a GPS receiver, and a 3G data option. There's music and video players, a Web browser, Google Maps, and even a proximity-based social network. Oh, and it also plays games, I guess (more on those in a separate post).

It's a curious approach. What's likely to keep standalone portable video game systems afloat in the face of cell phone gaming is not processing power or connectivity--the rapid improvement in iterative cell phones will always dwarf static platforms in these areas after the gaming systems have been on the market for a short time. The advantage of these dedicated game systems is in the optimization for gaming itself: developers can spend long development cycles on ambitious game designs because the hardware target stays the same for a long time and control mechanisms can be offered which can not be touched by devices which need to be more flexible.

Sony's approach hasn't sacrificed that optimization here, but the entire fate of the system's success rests on how well it performs in the games area. These dedicated systems will never be preferred by a large enough audience over a good smart phone for most things. The PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS will be purchased--or not purchased--entirely on whether people who care a lot about playing really good games decide the quality of gaming on offer is worth having a dedicated device at all. The Vita and 3DS don't have the advantage home consoles have of being set up on the television--the display people use for any number of things, thereby justifying all manners of streaming media and family interaction as a selling point. If gaming ends up being an afterthought on the Vita (I'm not implying it is--it is far too early to tell), the device will fail.

Let's see how this plays out. I think there's more than enough space for both the Vita and the 3DS, despite the burgeoning smart phone market--even if they become a rapidly decreasing percentage of the total portable game market's revenue.

In the meantime, check out the article at Ars. There's a whole lot of detail there.

→ Analogue: A Hate Story

by Michael in

Analogue: A Hate Story

The first commercial (not free) game made by Christine Love. I don't believe there's any connection between the two other than title similarity, but I've played and quite liked Digital: A Love Story (which is from 2010 but I didn't play until last year--and alarmingly forgot about it completely when writing about the games I played in 2011). Digital has no major artwork to speak of, being played from the perspective of you using an old antiquated computer with dial-up. This game seems completely different with anime-style artwork and animations.

It's $15, which some people are complaining is a high price. I don't really see the complaint as very valid. The price isn't much higher than going to a movie or buying a new hardcover book. If the thing is more than a couple hours long (or even just) and quality is sufficiently high price isn't an issue. Quality is the main price justifier here. If it's not good, the price isn't worth it. Just like a book or movie. If it's good, even if short, $15 is not too much to ask.

If you want to decide whether or not you should give the game a shot, she has free trial versions up for download for Windows, OS X, and Linux. If you like the trial but want to know what kind of full story she's capable of telling you can of course play Digital: A Love Story for free to see if you think her storytelling style is up your alley (though you might not like the aesthetic, the story is engrossing by the end).

Looking forward to playing this game when I get a chance. If the storytelling is anywhere near the quality of Digital's, I'm in for a treat.