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The Verge: ‘My Xbox One S is now a meaningfully different console to my PS4’

Sam Byford, The Verge:

It’s also something that Sony simply isn’t able to offer, given the complexity of the PlayStation 3 hardware and consequent difficulty of emulating its software. And to be clear, Sony doesn’t really need to do it — the PS4 library is more than strong enough to make the console worth buying. If I only owned an Xbox and had the choice of being able to play the likes of Nier Automata, Uncharted, and Horizon Zero Dawn instead of a bunch of games from the last decade, I’d take it. It’s the paucity of Xbox One-exclusive content that is forcing Microsoft to find other ways to get people to use the platform.

That’s actually fine with me. I like that my Xbox One S is now a meaningfully different console to my PS4 Pro, with different use cases and functionality. It’s the box I go to for 4K Blu-rays, Forza Horizon 3 in HDR, or Ninja Gaiden Black with a usable controller. It’s the box I switch on to browse through when I’m not sure what I feel like doing, or when I’d rather play Cuphead on the couch than at my desk.

As I said, I think Microsoft has turned a story-telling corner.

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Video Game Music’s Tremendous Power

Voice actor David W. Collins digging into the Super Mario Bros. ‘Ground Theme’ on his recently debuted Soundtrack Show podcast:

As a general concept, game music is very often written to loop back around, seamlessly. This composition is meant to loop endlessly into itself so you can play for hours and hours and hours. But the actual composition that we just listened to was only 80 seconds long. 80 seconds! And there’s repetition within that 80 seconds; there are repeating parts.

There are other pieces of music in this game — the underground music, the underwater music, the castle music, a series of music fanfares, etc. — but in total, the amount of music written for this game adds up to less than 5 minutes. 5 minutes of music. 40 hours of gameplay, give or take on average. 40 million copies.

Now we’re starting to get a picture of the power of video game music. The amount of times that we heard that 80 seconds. That’s what I mean about video game music’s tremendous power. It’s why we have to talk about it.

Don’t take repetition for granted. When done poorly, repetitious music can become jarring — quickly. When done well, a great loop can increase the feeling of immersion in the game’s world. When done well, a standalone soundtrack’s standard of two loops per song feels wrong.

Nintendo has a knack for this. Koji Kondo — composer of many first-party Nintendo titles, including Super Mario Bros. — is without a doubt a master at this. But even Kazumi Tokata painted his masterful stroke with the Wii’s heavily repeatable ‘Mii Plaza’ and ‘Wii Shop Channel’ themes, both of which continue to live on in today’s mainstream.

While today’s AAA titles can incorporate orchestral arrangements through to procedurally generated soundscapes, repetition in video game music was born with the medium and will continue to live on. For those of us who grew of up listening to 8-bit repetitions to orchestral repetitions, we’ve had the great fortune of experiencing the evolution of a music technology, medium, and experience, as I touched on in my piece 1985: Burst and Bloom:

The sounds, visuals, and interactivity provided a pool of imagination. The limitations of early consoles could not provide orchestral arrangements. Instead, repetitious patterns were drilled into our heads. They not only encapsulated the game we were playing, but they opened the world outside to a new soundtrack, creating a wealth of memories that could be tapped into from a few simple chirps. Hearing these primitive arrangements evolve felt like experiencing the birth of music. As hardware progressed, so did the complexity if the music. Repetitive pieces turned into grand and iconic themes, each game re-shaping the idea and importance of video game music.

Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Mega Man 2, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, T&C Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, Vectorman — these are some of my favorites.

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Most Video Games Are Too Long

Patrick Klepek for Vice’s Waypoint:

Minit knew what it wanted to accomplish, and how long it took to accomplish it. Done. But it also left me wanting more. If they announce a sequel—may I propose Another Minit?—I’ll be there with bells on. Too many games leave me exhausted, as if my dozens of hours have only made a small dent. (This is especially true for open world games.)

I recently played and completed Florence on iOS in 40 minutes. In that short stint, it hooked me, filled me with hope, sadness, and nostalgia, and ultimately left a last impression on me. It felt much like Disney’s Paperman short.

I understand the feeling of immersion, but even with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — as focused on in the previous post — I was yearning to finish. Most of the most impactful gaming experiences I’ve had have been shy of four hours; Journey — again, mentioned in Lewis Gordon’s ‘The Rise of the Ambient Video Game’ previously linked to — has been the most impactful of all. Another being Dear Esther.

Speaking got both Journey and Dear Esther, see also ‘Why the Two-hour Game is the Future’.

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The rise of the ambient video game

Lewis Gordon, writing for The Outline:

Both The Legend of Zelda and these ambient records channeled the natural elements of water, earth, and air — phenomena of increasing rarity in the modern Japanese city. To step into such video game worlds was to stabilise oneself within the frenetic noise and anonymity of the expanding urban spaces. The Famicom allowed players to experience video games from the comfort of their home while Yoshimura, alongside other ambient artists of the era such as Satoshi Ashikawa, designed their records for public spaces whose mood they attempted to subtly augment. Later, in 1993, Haruomi Hosono, member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, released Medicine Compilation From the Quiet Lodge, an ambient album touching on house and techno but infused with Japan’s past and elementalism. Its title articulated the healing potential of music created outside of the metropolis.

A lovely observation and read by Gordon.

Polygon’s God of War Review: ‘You don’t find collectibles; you find entire chunks of story’

Chris Plante, Polygon:

All of which is to say that the game is relaxed to the point of bordering on indifferent. Many of God of War’s most interesting surprises are optional, branching from the game’s sturdy throughline: secret rooms giving way to hidden caverns winding to towering statues or belligerent dragons — which I would have missed altogether had I just followed my compass to the next objective. You don’t find collectibles; you find entire chunks of story tucked behind a mossy wall or under a tropical island. God of War, like last year’s Nier: Automata and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, rewards the player who inspects its immaculately designed world as if it were a hidden object game.

This reminds me of Star Fox 64. A player could “beat” Star Fox 64 without ever visiting over 50% of the areas/missions created for the game. (“Beat” in quotes as the path the player uncovers indicates a level of completeness, ultimately leading to a truer ending.)

It’s one thing to sprinkle trinkets throughout a game. It’s another to build entire stories and environments that may never be found. God of War sounds remarkable.

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More Original Xbox Games Coming to Xbox One Backward Compatibility

Xbox Wire: The official Xbox blog:

Starting today, fans can play Sonic Generations for the first time on the Xbox One family of devices alongside other Xbox 360 favorites that will receive Xbox One X Enhanced updates such as Darksiders, Gears of War 2, Portal 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

Later this month, we’ll release two batches of Original Xbox games – the first on April 17 and the second on April 26. All of these Original Xbox games will take advantage of the power of Xbox One with up to 4X the pixel count on Xbox One and Xbox One S, and up to 16X the pixel count on Xbox One X. See below for the full list of titles that will be available later this month, and don’t forget to visit https://majornelson.com/blog/xbox-one-backward-compatibility/ for the full list of backward compatible titles available on Xbox One.

This is an impressive list of titles.

Microsoft’s continued focus on backward compatibility is a smart move. It certainly won’t be enough to sell the tens of millions of units necessary to catch up to PlayStation 4’s sales figures, but in conjunction with increasing cross-network compatibility and the impressive power in the Xbox One X (vs. the PS4 Pro), I think Microsoft has turned a story-telling corner.

That said, for the same reasons I think backwards compatibility is a winning strategy for Xbox One, I think the Nintendo Switch will hold the lead on the conversation for a long while. After only 1 year on store shelves, the Switch’s sales trajectory (14 million units) will likely surpass Xbox One’s total 25-30 million units in 2018. PlayStation 4 has a much greater lead at 76.5 million units sold over 4.5 years. However, 14 million units in one year is without Nintendo breaking the seal on their back-catalog. And unless Microsoft or Sony glom on to exclusive licenses for third-party back-catalog — they won’t — there’s no telling who else may hop aboard the Switch train. (Come on, Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts!)

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Demystify Technology

Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, during Recode and MSNBC’s interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook:

But, to answer your question, yes — everybody has to code in Chicago because it’s a graduation requirement. I want to be clear on that.

The goal is not to turn 380,000 students into computer scientists, but really to demystify technology, and to make sure that they understand that this is a language, and these are skills that transcend disciplines; that they can use it in math courses — they can use the logic that they learn in any course that they’re taking. It really is about bringing in the type of robust learning that we see in schools around the country to every school in Chicago.

When I first heard about it— I’m former history teacher, so I couldn’t imagine what that would look like in my classroom 15 or 20 years ago. But the teachers are really embracing it. Through the training that we’re going to offer our teachers at North Western through Apple support is just amazing. It’ll demystify coding — not only for the students, but for the adults. I know at Escuela — we were just over here chatting about how the students are teaching the teachers. I think as adults we’re coming into this and learning the importance and it’s being driven by the technology. But it’s mostly being driven by the demand from our students. They learn differently and they are asking us to catchup with the 21st century.

One of my biggest regrets is not leaning into programming in high school.

In middle-school, I found it fascinating. But, during high school, caught up somewhere between punk ethos and popularity, I opted out of taking programming courses. I always felt like I’d get my ass kicked for taking a computer programming course. However, that didn’t stop me from enrolling in the chess club and taking AP physics, calculus, and government. Such is the confusion of high school identity.

Needless to say, programming was not required. It fills me with joy to learn that it is required in Chicago. Technology is as fundamental as history, math, and writing. It goes beyond revamping home economics. Everyone should learn to code, just as everyone should learn algebra and about World War II. It doesn’t mean they’ll be forced into computer science any more than they’ll be forced to become mathematicians or historians, but they’ll be better equipped to problem solve and understand how the world around them works.

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Cross-Network Play is “the Next Logical Step”

Matthew Handrahan, GamesIndustry.biz:

Epic believes that the same process is starting to happen in markets like the US and Europe, thanks in no small part to refinements and improvements made to the Unreal Engine. During State of Unreal, Studio Wildcard’s co-founders Doug Kennedy and Jesse Rapczak came onstage to talk about Ark: Survival Evolved on mobile, and announced that it was being ported for Nintendo Switch. Sweeney also mentioned the mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which was first announced in November last year.

Another example is, of course, Epic’s own Fortnite, which Sweeney believes is “unique” even within the context of the larger trend; principally because the work Epic has done to make it possible will benefit anyone that uses the Unreal Engine.

“So that they can do the same thing,” Sweeney adds. “And that is build one unified game that runs on all platforms, that is the same experience everywhere, and is a social experience that you can play with friends across all of the different platforms.

“What we have is this one engine that’s supporting AAA production values and game sizes and content bases that runs everywhere. This is going to be a great setup for the games industry, because it means that now you don’t have a divide between casual mobile games and high-end PC and console games.”

For Epic, this all makes complete sense and will give Unreal Engine a massive leg up as a development tool.

I wrote about the need for cross-network play in my piece Sold on Cross-Network Play. Much of the piece — albeit not transparently — stemmed from my frustration of having to hook up my Xbox One to play Overwatch with my friends. It was extremely encouraging to learn that players of Minecraft and Rocket League would be able to share experiences between Switch, Xbox One, and Steam.

Sony claims that their reluctance of opening cross-network play is out of protection of their community. I think that is a fair stance, but is the Sony community any less toxic than others? I think the real fear is losing an amount of ability to lock in players to PlayStation 4. It’s the same case made for exclusive games and content, the latter I vehemently oppose.

Maybe it’s just the era I grew up in, but I believe in exclusive first-party experiences. Beyond the console wars which were somewhat steeped in technology battles as much as publishing and political ones, there is something to be said for the marriage of first-party hardware and software. Nintendo and Apple are prime examples this, creating unique and often stellar experiences by leveraging both sides of the stack.

Sony can hold their own when it comes to exclusives. It’s time to open the network.

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Nintendo Switch breaks records for first-year US sales

GamesIndustry.biz:

According to data from the NPD Group, the device has now achieved more year-one sales than any other console in history. While no figure was specified, it’s likely to be well over five million, as Nintendo reported 4.8 million sales in the US by the end of 2017.

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Nintendo Switch Is the Fastest-Selling Console in U.S. History

John Ballard, The Motley Fool:

The best-selling console ever is the PS2, which launched in 2000 and sold 157.68 million units over its life cycle, according to VGChartz. Sony shipped 10.61 million units in the first year of  PS2 sales.

Nintendo’s all-time best-selling game console — Wii — sold more than 4 million units within the first 10 months, and totaled 101.63 million units over its life cycle.

As for Switch, management says it expects Switch sales to reach 16 million by the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year in March 2018. That puts Switch way ahead of PS2, and on pace to be the best-selling console ever.

Big-N’s Big Year, indeed.

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