Talkin Bout My Generation

With the Wii U scheduled to launch sometime in 2012, and increased rumors of a new Xbox and/or Playstation supposedly in the works, it seems safe to assume that the current generation of consoles might be nearing an end. At the end of the prior generation, involving the PS2, original Xbox and GameCube, most everyone felt that the next generation, featuring the 360, PS3 and Wii, would be a generation like no other, the best generation ever, the generation that would break down all the walls that had previously existed and bring gaming to even more masses than the past generation. Did it succeed? Is the current generation the best ever or did it really just continue the momentum the past generation created.
That is the focus of this blog post. There are a few things to note before getting to the meat of this. Comparing this generation (360, PS3, Wii) to the last one (Xbox, PS2, GameCube) makes sense because the past generation, and in particular the PS2, really put gaming on the map in ways never before realized. Games and gamers suddenly became cool. Stereotypes fell away like a mudslide. Nerds were no longer quite the outcasts they had always been. Games became the hot medium for media and revenues went through the roof. If not for the prior generation, the current generation would have been no big deal. But, the PS3/ 360/ Wii generation has been a huge deal. Budgets for games are now comparable to Hollywood blockbusters and a good game can easily out gross even the biggest of movies. So comparing the two generations, and noting how they each progressed gaming, seems somewhat natural and makes a lot of sense.
At the same time, there are certain aspects of the current generation that comparing it to the prior generation would make no sense at all. Take graphics for instance. Comparing a PS3 games graphics to a PS2 game is patently absurd. That is just one example of where a straight up comparison of the two generations is not perfect. Also, we won’t consider PC games in this whole comparison since the PC is a true multi-generational platform. This comparison will be limited to consoles. Also, let’s leave the online factor out of this. Obviously, again, the PS3/360/Wii generation has revolutionized the whole concept of online gaming. Yes, the original Xbox brought XBL to the world, but not like the 360 has. And the PS2 Network Adapter…yeah…well anyway. While we are on the subject of online gaming, let’s also exclude DLC from the conversation. That is something that, for better or worse, is really exclusive to this present generation.
No, there are several areas where the present generation’s impact is undeniable. Online gaming is a really, really big one. The emergence of Co-Op gaming is another one. Co-Op has gotten so popular and important that if a game does not have a strong story, deep multi-player, and some sort of Co-Op aspect to it, its review scores may very well take a hit.
Instead, this blog will focus on…get ready for it….the games themselves. A shocking concept to be sure. What I actually did was go to Metacritic and looked at the Metascores for the past two generations and I noticed some interesting things that have led me to conclude that the present generation and the prior generation are, in many ways, equal to each other, equally important to the evolving history of gaming, and provide a very solid foundation for the coming generation because of the continued excellence in the development of some beloved franchises, the introduction of some new favorites, and the solid foundation upon which future virtual worlds shall be built. For your enjoyment, here is what I noticed.

The GTA Factor

The highest rated game crossing the two generations was Grand Theft Auto IV with a 98. Only the most jaded of gamers would call GTA IV anything but tremendous. But, GTA IV would not have even been an afterthought if not for Grand Theft Auto III and GTA Vice City (or GTA 3.5 as some have called it).  Grand Theft Auto III had a Metascore of 97, while Vice City scored an impressive 95. It was GTA III that put the franchise and, pretty much, Rockstar on the map. GTA also saw the blurring of the line between the Action and Adventure genres, creating a new genre known, stunningly enough, as the Action-Adventure genre. How many games now fall within that genre? More importantly, GTA enabled Rockstar to be tremendously successful, which in turn led to games like Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, and the upcoming Max Payne 3. Yes, I know GTA was not Rockstar’s first game.  I know they did a lot of the heavy lifting on the original Max Payne games. But, if not for GTA’s success, Rockstar would not be where it is today. GTA I and II were OK games, but what Rockstar accomplished with GTA III is still being talked about, and felt, today.

What GTA also did was introduce many to the concept of the open world game. Most of us had never seen or played anything like GTA before. “Wait, you mean I don’t have to do this mission right now? I can come back to it later? I can do a Taxi mission and still pick up the main storyline a couple hours later?”  If you only got into gaming this current generation, then you take this for granted the same way my kids take for granted that they have 150 channels to choose from (instead of the 10 we had when I was a kid 100 years ago). But, it was GTA that really revolutionized the whole open world concept and took it to a new level, so much so that linear game play is now almost frowned upon.  That is what a major impact GTA has had on the industry.

As for as a direct comparison between GTA III, Vice City and GTA IV, that is a difficult question because the sprawling beauty of GTA IV seems to cast a very large shadow over GTA III and Vice City. GTA III’s lack of real voice acting also hurt it here. Vice City, while perhaps not being as rich a game as GTA III, did have Ray Liotta doing the voice for Tommy Vercetti so that counts for a lot. With the present generation, voice over has become so big that game awards are handed out to real life actors for their virtual performances. From a story standpoint, I think you have to give GTA IV the nod here.  And, one also has to acknowledge that GTA IV’s control scheme just made it seem more polished and focused than GTA III or Vice City.  But, whether you prefer GTA III, Vice City or GTA IV, the impact of all three games on the entire industry is probably unmatched by any other game series released in the past decade.

Tony Hawk and the Alternative Sport Genre

One genre, or perhaps sub-genre, that really exploded during the prior generation, but has really been a bust during the present generation, is the Alternative Sport genre and, in particular, skateboarding games. Yes, true, there is nothing at all wrong with the Skate games. In fact, they were quite good. But, let’s be honest here…when you think of the word “skateboarding” and combine that with video games, you have to think of the Tony Hawk series. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 had a Metascore of 97 and is pretty much acknowledged as the apex of skateboarding games. Anyone who played that game has to admit that we had not really seen anything quite like THPS3 before.  Perhaps more telling though as to the true impact of THPS3 is the door it opened to other very popular franchises on the prior generation and to the whole Alternative Sport genre. Think about this for a moment. The entire SSX series might not have ever mattered without THPS3’s success. Developers started to get very creative and began to look at the entire sports game genre in a different light. Look at the NBA Street series, all very good games that took the sim out of the sport and inserted over the top, arcade based action. It got so big that EA Sports created a spinoff of themselves, EA Sports Big. Those guys got, shall we say, creative with games like Sled Storm or Freekstyle. But, the legacy of THPS3, in my opinion, is how they gave developers the idea as to how to make certain sports based titles more approachable to the masses, which has led to games such as the Burnout series, or Motorsport, or something like Hot Shots Golf, or even something like WWE All-Stars, a much less sim based version of professional wrestling (an oxymoron unto itself, I know). Has this always worked well this generation? Certainly not. This generations Tony Hawk games have not been good and the Ride peripheral was very disappointing. Backbreaker is another example of a decent idea going sideways. As for the Alternative Sport Genre, the PS2/Xbox/ GameCube generation was the clear winner. The present generation has the potential to make this genre great again. Perhaps the upcoming SSX game will revitalize the genre. Thus far, though, this potential has not been realized.

Mario Finds His Groove

While the prior generation may have put skateboarding games on the map, it is the present generation that saw one of gaming’s most beloved icons return to his rightful spot atop gaming’s pedestal.  I am speaking of the most famous Italian Plumber ever, Mario. The GameCube was an unmitigated disappointment as far as Mario was concerned. All we really got was Super Mario Sunshine. You can’t really count something like Paper Mario as a pure Mario game because, for most of us, Mario means platforming. While Sunshine was a good game, it was not a great game. Fast forward to the Wii and we got treated to Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy II. Both of these games had a Metascore of 97 and these scores were well deserved. Whatever Sunshine might have lacked in that intangible quality that games like Mario 64 or Super Mario Brothers 3 had, Super Mario Galaxy I & II had it in droves. What is really impressive about this is how Nintendo managed to pull this off with a primarily motion based control scheme. Exploring small planets and using a Star Pointer was, for some reason, just much more satisfying than anything that happened in Sunshine. From the standpoint of Mario, the Wii was a lifesaver and made the Mario character relevant, and vibrant, again to a whole new generation of gamers.

The Rise of the Shooter

If there is one genre that rose to prominence in the prior generation, and has continued its meteoric rise in the present generation, it is the Shooter. First Person or Third Person…it does not really matter. Shooters might be the most popular games out there and they certainly form the cornerstone for most competitive e-sports type of games. From a pure score standpoint, two Shooters from the prior generation, Metroid Prime and Halo Combat Evolved both check in with a 97, while one Shooter from the present generation, Bioshock, scored a 96. Metroid has been around for many years, but it would be very difficult for anyone to deny the massive impact the Halo franchise has had on the Shooter genre. Halo defined the original Xbox and put it on the map; Halo 2 made sure it was not going anywhere.  Halo was not the first shooter and we all know that. But, it was the first shooter to appear on consoles that really kicked the door in, made shooters accessible to a whole new demographic, and resulted in all sorts of sub-genres.  For instance, the prior generation was notorious for tons and tons of WWII based Shooters, such as Medal of Honor. The Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon series emerged around the same time. Without question, the PC versions of these great series were superior. It didn’t matter. What did matter was developers knew that once they could put a similar product on consoles, it was off to the races.

This present generation has seen Shooters explode to new levels. Three excellent Halo games have been released and we saw the emergence of terrific new franchises such as Bioshock and Gears of War, as well as the evolution of the Call of Duty franchise into the most popular franchise on the planet this side of Azeroth. But the way multi-player has evolved with Shooters in this generation is phenomenal. So many people are playing and competing online all the time, each trying to level up, or get the next perk, or whatever. Campaigns have gotten more dramatic and there is better story development throughout the single player experience. But, multi-player is as addicting as anything once you really get into it. So, while the prior generation had games with higher scores, it is the present generation that clearly took Shooters to the next level. With the recent release of Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3, it does not appear that will be slowing down anytime soon.

A Snake In The Grass

While the Metal Gear franchise has been around, albeit in somewhat altered fashion, since the days of the NES, it was the release of MGS 2: Son’s of Liberty on the PS2 that introduced many of us to Raiden, Solid Snake, and other memorable characters. It also truly helped to define and refine the whole stealth, action-adventure game. Unlike Shooters, where the goal is to usually go in guns blazing, grab the biggest weapon you can find, and just blast the hell out of everything in sight, MGS2 presented an alternative; sneak around your enemies so they never even really know what happened. MGS 2 received a Metascore of 96 and it was a revolutionary game across the board. Out of the games mentioned thus far, MGS2 had probably the best story of any of them. The impact of MGS2 was felt by other stealth based games such as the Splinter Cell series of games, or some of the Hitman games. Other games use stealth for certain missions to excellent effect, such as the Assassin’s Creed series.

The current generation has seen only one true MGS game and that was Metal Gear Solid 4. MGS 4 was another solid title. It answered many of the questions that needed to be answered after the first three MGS games.  Most of us who were fans of the series felt like MGS IV wrapped up the series as well as we could have hoped, even though most of us also have our suspicions as to whether we have truly seen the last of Snake. For better or worse, however, MGS IV evolved games to the point that the line between game and movie got blurred considerably. The cut scenes in MGS IV, all together, come out to nearly 90 minutes of cinematics.  That is the average length of many movies! Longer and more involved cut-scenes are becoming more and more common and are being used to advance story in games more and more frequently. Is this a good thing? So long as the player is given the option to skip through these scenes, I personally think it is a great thing, adding depth and scope to games as never before.  What MGS 2 started, MGS 4 has taken to another level. Games have become more than just games thanks to the Metal Gear Solid series. They are now cinematic events and there is no reason to think the next generation of consoles won’t take this to the next level.

The Zombie Apocalypse

You cannot really talk about video games anymore without addressing the proliferation of zombies and zombie related aspects to games. Dead Rising, the Left 4 Dead series, or the recently released Dead Island are just a few examples of full fledged zombie themed games. It goes farther than that though. Zombies dominate DLC and additional game modes. Zombies have appeared in the most unlikely of places, such as on the battlefield in Call of Duty, the old west in Red Dead Redemption, or in your backyard in Plants v. Zombies. Zombies are all over mobile devices such as the iPhone or Android. Zombies have become so big I actually watched a documentary the other day that spent a good two hours researching whether zombies in Haiti were real. How did we come to this? When did the T-Virus actually hit?

Ironically, it was the series that introduced us to the T-Virus that seemed to usher in the Age of Zombies. Resident Evil 4 is another game with a Metascore of 96 and the game that reinvigorated the RE series. Perhaps more so than any other game in recent memory, RE4 seemed to create the current mania over zombies so prevalent to the current generation. Originally released on the GameCube and then ported over to the PS2, refined and ported again to the Wii, and then scaled down and ported again to all sorts of other devices, RE4 was an unmitigated success.  Adding something as obvious as laser sighting on weapons seems like a no-brainer by current standards but was oddly missing from earlier RE games. The introduction of dynamic cut scenes was something somewhat new at the time, but it is everywhere now. But, the game appealed to so many, on so many levels, that a whole new crowd of gamers got into the survival horror genre. Now those same people have all discovered how much fun it is to plow through fields of zombies and other ghoulish creatures. The impact of RE4 is still felt today and while market saturation of zombie games seem destined to create zombie burnout, RE4, and it’s progeny, have radically changed the gaming landscape for all of us.

More Bang For The Buck

Another game with a Metascore of 96 is the fantastic Orange Box. Calling the Orange Box simply a game, however, does not do it justice. What made The Orange Box so amazing was the value it delivered to gamers on so many levels. The guys at Valve are no dummies and they realized that wrapping a compilation of games around the amazing Half-Life 2 series would be a stroke of genius. Not only did gamers get all of Half-Life 2, including Episode 1 and 2 (which would have made the game a must buy on its own merits) but it added on the multi-player hit Team Fortress 2 and the different, but innovative game Portal. Now, the Orange Box was not the first such compilation we had ever seen.  But, it might have been the best compilation we had seen up to that time and it is rather difficult to point to any compilation that has come out since then that has been better. What the Orange Box also did better than probably any other compilation was the diversity that the compilation provided to the gamer. Unlike prior compilations such as Command & Conquer: The First Decade, or Diablo Battle Chest, or something along those lines, the Orange Box was not just a repackaging of a series of games and sequels. It provided that with Half-Life 2 and Episode 1 and 2. But by finally releasing a sequel to the original Team Fortress and developing a fantastic new IP in Portal, Valve blended new and old, single player and multi-player, packaged it all together and gave it to the customer at the same price that new games currently sell at ($60 for the PS3 or 360; $50 for the PC). Never before had five games of such quality been packaged together and released for such a price. IGN called the Orange Box “the best deal in video game history.”

Equally impressive is the impact the Orange Box has had upon gaming ever since.  While we have not seen a release similar to Orange Box yet, and while there is little question that gamers are probably getting ripped off with DLC and micro-transactions being so prevalent, there are also many examples of the industry trying to give gamers more value for their gaming dollar. Practically every AAA release now ends up having a Game Of The Year edition that includes all DLC previously released, along with some exclusive skin, or weapon, or character, etc. Compilations are becoming more frequent, such as the Gears of War Triple Pack, or the Resistance Dual Pack, or the Guild Wars Trilogy, and so forth. HD remake compilations have been getting increasingly common over the past couple of years, such as the God of War Collection, or the God of War Origins Collection, or the Ico/ Shadow of the Colossus Collection. More games like this are on the way, such as the the Jax and Daxter Trilogy. Publishers seem to believe that some of the most popular games from the past generation will be well received by the current generation of gamers, and they are probably right. The point is that the Orange Box showed developers that if you give, you shall receive. Gamers, perhaps unconsciously, realize that games offer a great return on investment from a time to money spent ratio. While there is no question publishers are out to maximize their profits, they are very much aware that giving the most value they can, for the cheapest development costs possible, is a sure way to maximize profits. It is only a matter of time before we see all of the Modern Warfare games packaged and re-released, or the entire Halo series, or the entire Legend of Zelda series, at a reduced price. Personally, that does not sound like too bad of a deal to me.

A Crisis of Conscience

Another game with a Metascore of 96 is the magnificent Mass Effect 2. The Mass Effect series set a new standard for games by seamlessly blending the action, RPG, and third-person shooter genres and making it all work splendidly. But, the original Mass Effect, and then its sequel, also perfected something that was really popularized with Knights of the Old Republic: The power of choice and the moral consequences of those decisions.  The original KOTOR did this in a very clever way as it utilized the light side and dark side of the Force to hammer this home. To the somewhat limited extent that the prior generation pressed the morality hot button, it did it in a rather clearly defined way, such as choosing whether one was a Jedi or a Sith. This generation, however, has cleverly disguised this whole concept. The Mass Effect series really stresses the importance of the choices we make as we progress through a game. And the power of the current consoles enables the choices we make to be carried on from one game to the next, which is what we saw in Mass Effect 2.

But, with this present generation, good and evil are not black and white. There are many instances of shades of gray. There are numerous examples of this: Nathan Hale, the hero of Resistance: Fall of Man and for much of Resistance 2 eventually becoming that which he was trying to destroy; Kratos’s path of destruction in the God of War series; Much of Heavy Rain deals with very deep issues; Cole Mcrath’s odyssey in inFamous; the choice in Bioshock whether to kill or spare the Little Sisters. These are just a few examples. Then there has been the rise of the anti-hero in many games. In many respects, this is akin to when Stone Cold Steve Austin became the most popular pro wrestler in the world. He was certainly not like Hulk Hogan. Instead of taking his vitamins, he was chugging beer. He was a true anti-hero that appealed to the masses. We have seen a sharp increase in that sort of character with this generation of consoles.  Darth Vader’s Apprentice from The Force Unleashed, Nikko Bellic from GTA IV, John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, Marcus Phoenix from Gears of War, Travis Touchdown from No More Heroes,  Altair and Ezio from Assassin’s Creed, Alex Mercer from Prototype, etc.

All of these very complex characters have dark and light within them and that is what makes them so compelling. Morality has become integral to many games’ story lines. It is a sign as to how story in a game is no longer an afterthought. Story is as essential to a game as the engine on which it is based and great stories need grand, deep, and, sometimes, tormented souls who struggle with their own morality. This generation has put us in touch with those characters, and the choices they face, in a way no other medium before has accomplished: By turning us into the characters themselves. It is a brilliant aspect of many modern games that can sometimes go unnoticed.

Bold New Worlds

The last area I want to explore is with respect to the massive worlds we have seen created by modern video games. There are four more games with scores of 96, two of them released in the past couple of months, Batman: Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The other two games are Uncharted 2 and the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Now, Wind Waker was not the only game from the prior generation that introduced a truly massive world to gamers. GTA III and Vice City did an excellent job of that, as did RPGs such as Final Fantasy X or Suikoden III.  Wind Waker did utilize the use of water to extremes we had not seen before, and probably too much so. Still, games such as Wind Waker or GTA III began to really show just how open “open world” could be.

But, with the present generation, game worlds have become truly massive. It does not matter if the game is largely linear, like Uncharted 2, or immensely open, like Skyrim.  The worlds in which we play can truly be classified as “worlds”. This results in many games eclipsing the 50 hour mark in terms of game play. And some of these game worlds are unforgettable.  The Wastelands of Fallout 3, Albion from Fable II, the planet Pandora from Borderlands, Rapture from Bioshock, Liberty City in GTA IV, the Wild West as depicted in Red Dead Redemption, the post apocalyptic world of Rage, and so forth. This development of game worlds has also enabled developers to do something they were unable to do previously: Make a great super hero game (or two). Most of us felt that such a thing was not possible after experiences with games like Superman 64 or Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis, or so many other crappy Batman games. Then along came Arkham Asylum and massively exceeded everyone’s expectations. I remember playing Arkham Asylum at E3 and immediately feeling that it was different. Here was a game that really captured what Batman was all about, gave you all of his tools, skills, and gadgets, and then dropped you into the heart of darkness known as Arkham Asylum. Here was an immense world all contained within the confines of a mental institution. As good as Arkham Asylum was though, Arkham City upped the ante, doing everything Arkham Asylum did so well and then improving on almost every bit of it. On top of that, gone was the Asylum and in its place was a whole city of anarchy upon which Batman could dispel justice.  Arkham City may very well win Game of the Year for 2011…and a pretty good Captain America game came out this year too. My, how we have gotten spoiled this year.

So what have we learned? The past two generations of consoles and games have introduced gamers to vast, expansive worlds, filled with memorable characters, challenging opponents, immersive stories, difficult decisions, epic conflicts, and more than a fair share of zombies. We have seen many classic games re-done, re-tooled and re-sold. We have seen games like Little Big Planet or Mod Nation Racers give normal people the tools they need to make their own levels, or even entire games. Indie games are getting better and better all the time. Though budgets for games have dramatically increased, games have remained at the $60 price point for a long while now and quite often we see Game of The Year Editions of games that include the main game, all the DLC, and other bonuses at a reduced price. These past two generations have been a quantum leap for gaming and there is no telling where this next generation will take us, whenever that next generation gets going. While the Wii U will have many features that are unique, in many ways it will just bring Nintendo even with Microsoft and Sony from a hardware standpoint. Still, once Wii U drops, many questions will start to be asked: What else will Wii U be able to do? What sorts of integration will the next Xbox have with Kinnect? How will the PS4 use the Move to better effect? Is there something even more innovative than motion control waiting out there? Will games achieve photo-realism? Will the line between games and movies diminish even further? What sorts of advances in AI will we see that will make everything more realistic? Will digital distribution moot all of this and become the dominant means by which games reach customers? And, lastly, will a harder game than Dark Souls be released?

Despite the economic problems many people face, the gaming industry continues to do quite well for itself. If the past two generations have taught us anything, it is that gaming is here to stay. With so many people now able to access gaming on so many different levels, the coming generation has all the foundation and potential to be the best one ever.  Where we go from here should be an exciting journey.

The State Of The Industry

Recently, the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) released its 2011 Report highlighting some essential facts and statistics relating to the Computer and Video Game Industry. This annual report is always very informative for those of us who not only love games, but love the industry as well. The 2011 report is a fascinating read because it shows some interesting trends and eye-opening aspects of the game industry many of us might not know.  Here are the highlights I found very interesting:

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1.      The game industry generates over $25 billion annually, directly and indirectly employs over 120,000 people, and those people are drawing an average annual salary of $90,000. With the economy as bad as it is, this clearly shows the gaming industry is a safe haven of sorts, or has the potential to be, for many young people or for anyone struggling to find a way to stay afloat.

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2.      72% of American households are playing games and the average age of a gamer is now 37 years old. 29% of the gamers in 2011 were over 50! So, next time someone says games are just for geeky kids hanging out in their mom’s basement, throw that stat out. For someone like me, 42 at the time I am writing this, it warms my heart to know that I am obviously not the only older gamer out there.

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3.      As you might expect, more men than women play games. Still, 42% of gamers are women. That is a higher number than many might have guessed.

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4.      Online game play is still a big deal, but perhaps not as you might expect. 47% of online gamers are playing puzzle games, or card/board games, or games based on popular game shows. 21% are playing sports games, action games, strategy games and RPGs. Despite the immense popularity of World of Warcraft, and a surge in the popularity of MMOs in general, as many have gone Free to Play, the persistent universe type of game only accounts for 11% of online gamers.

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5.      55% of gamers play games on their phones or on a handheld device. Obviously, mobile gaming has exploded thanks to the iPhone and Android devices. Look for this number to spike even higher as more people embrace the iPad, and tablets in general, and once the 3DS gets some better games out there. Oh, and there is this thing called Playstation Vita coming out soon. Yeah…you might have heard of it.

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6.      Somebody please forward this next statistic to Leeland Yee, or anyone else who thinks the government needs to regulate games: A whopping 91% of the time games are purchased or rented, a parent is present. 86% of the time a child receives a parents’ permission prior to renting or purchasing a game. And 90% of parents pay attention to the content their kids are playing. I would almost guarantee you will not see numbers close to that if you compare it to the movie or music industry. Beyond that, 86% of parents know about ESRB ratings and 98% of those are confident in the ESRB ratings. 45% of parents play games with their kids at least once a week. Want to relate to your kids folks?  Play a game with them.

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7.      The top 3 selling genres for consoles? (1) Action Games; (2) Sports Games; (3) Shooters. The top 3 selling genres for computer games? (1) Strategy; (2) RPG; (3) Casual games. The best selling rating category? E for everyone at 44%. M rated comes in second with 24% of the market.

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8.      The top selling games really are an example of the statistic in number 7, above. The top 3 selling console games? Black Ops, Madden, and Halo: Reach. For computers? Starcraft 2; World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and The Sims 3.

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9.   Digital distribution is growing, but perhaps not as fast as we may have thought. Physical discs still dominate the landscape, but the amount of digital distribution did go up by 4%, as compared to 2009. 24% of sales are now made by way of digital medium.

The statistics do not lie. The gaming industry continues to grow, despite the rest of the economy experiencing much difficulty. More importantly, the gaming industry continues to remain color blind. It continues to be gender neutral. And it never discriminates against someone based on age, religious viewpoints, sexual orientation, or anything like that. Not many industries out there can make a claim like that. But, then again… that’s what makes gaming the tremendous industry, and opportunity that it is.

If you wish to read the actual report, just follow the Link:  ESA Report 2011

The Myth Of The Sell Out

I am unashamed to admit that my favorite band is Green Day. Why would I be ashamed? Oh, I forgot. Because Green Day, like so many other bands before them, have “sold out.” They have compromised their hard core audience by putting out two Grammy Award winning albums that do not sound exactly like material from Kerplunk or Dookie or even Insomniac. This is something I have heard for years. Is this fair? What is selling out? Does selling out even really exist? That is what this blog is about and to explore this I will look at three of my favorite bands:  Green Day, Metallica, and Rush. My feeling on this is that none of these bands have truly sold out, although at the end I will offer some examples of situations where one might make a legitimate argument that the band in question sold out.  Let’s look at Green Day first.

Green Day

It has always been a bit funny to me how many people think Dookie was Green Day’s first album when, in reality, it was the band’s third offering. If you actually go back and listen to 1039/ Smoothed Out Slappy Hours or Kerplunk and then compare those offerings to what is on Dookie, you could use the word sell out to describe Dookie. Such an accusation would be an abomination to most music fans as Dookie is one of the more beloved punk/pop albums from the past 20 years. In reality though, most people who lobby the sell out accusation at Green Day look at their collection of work after Dookie as fodder for some pretty baseless accusations. It is hard to say that Insomniac represented a sellout. Most of the songs on Insomniac were every bit as heavy and hard-hitting as anything on Dookie. Even a song like Brain Stew, as basic a power chord driven song as you will ever find, had an intangible and primitive quality to it that kept you very much into it until Jaded gets going and takes the CD to another level. No, it was not until Nimrod came out that you started hearing the whispers. One cannot really say that about Nice Guys Finish Last, but the songs that follow that one, such as Hitchin a Ride,  The Grouch, or Redundant, sound quite different from what many Green Day fans were accustomed to at that point in time. But, does that mean Green Day was selling out? Hardly. Why is it that when a band or musician tries to experiment and expand the scope of their music, it is called selling out? The so-called “hardcore” fans really seem to be saying they want their band to sound the same forever. With Green Day, many fans apparently wanted every song that Green Day put out to sound like it was an extra previously unreleased track from Dookie. While that is understandable, it is not exactly fair to criticize a band because they wanted to sound different from one album to the next. If Green Day had not perhaps wanted to diversify their sound a bit, Good Riddance would not have come to pass and that would have been a tragedy.

The next Green Day album Warning provides the strongest case for an accusation of a Green Day sell out. Admittedly, Warning sounds nothing like any of the prior Green Day albums. The guitars do not sound much like punk at all and the album is, in general, not very heavy. But, there are great songs on that album, such as Minority, Macy’s Day Parade and Castaway. Just because it sounded different, did not mean the music wasn’t any good. I do not, however, see how Warning can be considered a sellout. To me a sellout album is one where a band or musician completely compromises their music and playing style for the sole purpose of selling records. Warning does not qualify. Whether you agree with the musical direction in which Warning went or not, you cannot look at Warning and say that songs like Misery, Deadbeat Holiday or Jackass were designed to appeal to a mass market. I have never met Green Day, but I hazard a guess that Warning was a conscious decision on the part of the guys to try something different, to go for a different sound, while at the same time maintaining what Green Day was all about. If you listen to interviews with bassist Mike Dirnt, who was talking about the unreleased Cigarettes and Valentines album just after the master tracks had been stolen, he indicated that Cigarettes and Valentines was more of a return to the Kerplunk and Insomniac sound. As Dirnt said: “”We’ve had a nice break from making hard and fast music and it’s made us want to do it again.” Green Day’s experimentation during this time frame is also shown by the bands side project, The Network, which sounds like a merging of Green Day and techno pop. Was this a sell-out too? Unlikely, judging by the huge numbers of Green Day fans who have never even heard of The Network. Whatever the situation, the combination of all the media bashing of Nimrod and Warning, combined with the unfortunate theft of what would have been Cigarettes and Valentines, paved the way for one of the most important rock albums of the past decade…American Idiot.

 I do not know many people who think American Idiot was a sellout. From the opening chords of the title track to the very end of the album, American Idiot is Green Day at its very best. Critically acclaimed by many, the album elevated Green Day to main-stream acceptance and inclusion with other big name bands such as U2. Ironically, it was the heaviest and fastest album since Dookie to do this. This begs the question: Even if you believe there is such a thing as selling out, is it even necessary? When you see what an album like American Idiot accomplished for a band, you have to wonder. But, American Idiot also set the stage for 21st Century Breakdown, which is what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. I would not go so far as to say Breakdown is as good an album as American Idiot, but I have heard so many people go off on Breakdown as not being true to Green Day, as not being anything like Dookie as, you guessed it, as being a sell-out. Nonsense! 21st Century Breakdown is a fantastic album and is every bit as Green Day as American Idiot is. In fact, to me, Breakdown seems like a continuation of American Idiot. Songs like Murder City, Viva La Gloria or the title track are as heavy as anything on American Idiot. Instead of a sell out, I think Breakdown really represents a very talented band trying to push its boundaries yet again, but departing less from its core roots and audience so as to try and keep most people happy, than it did with Warning. I think proof of this comes from listening to the other Green Day side project, Foxboro Hottubs. The Hottubs only offering, thus far, Stop, Drop & Roll is a great album but cannot be considered as sounding a lot like core Green Day. From Green Day’s viewpoint, probably, the Hottubs were a godsend. It represented an opportunity for them to do something different, but to not have it directly attach to the Green Day legacy. No, Stop, Drop & Roll would not have remotely satisfied Green Day’s fans as a proper follow up to American Idiot, but it was a nice diversion while we were waiting for Breakdown to come out…and it posed no risk to the casual Green Day fan of accidentally thinking that their new heroes had sold out.

Strong evidence against any sort of a Green Day sell out is the new live CD, Awesome as Fuck. Bands who have sold out do not typically acknowledge their original material, let alone play it live. Awesome as Fuck features several songs from 1039 and Kerplunk, as well as J.A.R. from the Angus soundtrack (or International Superhits if you prefer). If you got the album on iTunes, you can get three bonus tracks, but it is actually four since the last track is Paper Lanterns from 1039 and 2000 Light Years Away from Kerplunk. Is that selling out? Hardly.

As such, my conclusion on Green Day is that there has been no sell out with this band, none at all. What has happened since 1994, when Dookie came out, is that the band has grown up, become more complex, and has tried to expand its music and its sound. Sometimes this has worked out better than others. Was Warning a sell-out? I don’t think so. Was it a mistake to go in that direction from a musical standpoint? Perhaps, but you can’t blame a band for trying something different and then having the guts to accept the consequences, no matter the cost to their popularity. That is actually the antithesis of a sellout isn’t it?

 Metallica

 Using the word Metallica and the words “sell out” in the same sentence seems almost blasphemous. After all, Metallica is to heavy metal what Elvis is to rock in general or what The Beatles are to screaming teen girls in the 1960’s. They are the gold standard, the measuring stick, the top of the heap, etc. If there has been a sellout, where and when did this take place exactly? Certainly not during the Cliff Burton era. Kill Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets are damn near the Holy Trinity of heavy metal records. If you call any aspect of those albums a sell out, you may as well call Led Zeppelin IV a sell out as well. No, the sell out could not have happened there. The first album of the Jason Newsted era was And Justice For All, unless you count the Garage Days EP of course. Whatever the case, Justice was even further removed from the realm of a sellout than the first three albums. I played rhythm guitar in a heavy metal band in the 80’s and Justice is one annoyingly difficult album to try and cover, from start to finish. There are no easy songs, from a musical standpoint. So what if One brought Metallica main stream attention; it is one of the best Metallica songs ever.

 Ironically, it was Metallica’s polar opposite version of The Beatles White Album that brought the first accusations of a sell-out. I am talking of the bands self-titled 5th full album, also known as The Black Album. Yes, The Black Album was not as musically a challenging collection of songs as was Justice. And there is certainly ample evidence that Metallica was trying to seize upon the momentum that One had created by releasing songs that were more radio friendly. But, remember, this is 1991 we are talking about. Grunge is just now taking hold in the Pacific Northwest and beginning to spread. Radio stations, who just a few years earlier would barely admit a band like Metallica even existed, were now willing to play their songs, but probably not if they were as raw and hardcore as say Whiplash or as anti-uplifting a track as Trapped Under Ice. Metallica knew this and made songs they could feel proud of, but which radio stations would jump all over and capitalize on the tremendous momentum that hard rock, grunge, and metal were building during this time period. Enter Enter Sandman and the rest is history. Sandman and Nothing Else Matters absolutely lit the world of rock on fire and opened so many doors, to so many bands. I really think Metallica saw an opportunity not just for themselves but for many others and they went for it. Is that a sell out? I don’t think so.

It was the Load and Reload albums that really seemed to piss people off. The 5 year wait between The Black Album and Load did not help things at all. People were damn near expecting Load to be the metal equivalent of the Rapture. If you thought the expectations for the follow up to American Idiot were high, it was nothing compared to what people were expecting from Load. There was no way the album would ever live up to expectations. Was Load as good as The Black Album? No, not really. But, it was a good album and nothing for the guys to be ashamed of. Again, as we saw with Green Day, here was a talented band taking their music in a slightly, albeit noticeable direction. If you have ever listened to Kirk Hammet talk about Load, this comes through very clearly as he notes how much he was into jazz and blues, while James Hetfield was listening to a lot of country. God forbid artists should try and implement some of what they are most interested in at the time they record something. But a sell out? C’mon! Ain’t My Bitch is pretty darn far from being a sellout. King Nothing is different sounding but a very good song anyway. Hero Of The Day was absolutely ripped to shreds by hardcore Metallica fans, but that song is still heavier than Nothing Else Matters and you hardly ever hear anyone criticize the latter. When I first listened to the album some 15 years ago, my initial impression was that Aint My Bitch, Until It Sleeps, and Wasting My Hate were the songs on the album that sounded most like old Metallica and I still feel that way. So Load was different, but not a sell-out.

The same can be said of Reload, which was really nothing more than Load, Part II. Reload was more of the same. To me, Reload was not as good as Load. It was still good, but there were some odd moments there. The Memory Remains is a, shall we say, different song. But, then you get that countered by songs like Better Than You or Unforgiven II. So Reload was good as well and if Load was not a sellout, Reload can’t really be one either. It is the next true album where a strong case for a sellout can be made. I say true album because Garage Inc and S&M came out in the intervening time frame. Garage Inc was fantastic. A re-release of the Garage Days EP and then a ton of amazing other cover songs made Garage Inc. one of my personal favorite Metallica albums ever. S&M was very different and only proves how great Metallica is. What other heavy metal band could take the stage with the San Francisco Symphony & Orchestra and be able to blend what they do with what the symphony does so effectively? S&M was Metallica’s greatest hits in a completely different setting. Hard to really complain about S&M.

No, it is St. Anger that is a problem here. First off, this time out we had to wait six years for this one. A bigger issue is how the band really went in a different direction with their sound on this. On the one hand, it was raw, it was heavy, and it was different. But, the sound of Lars’s drums were very strange. They sounded like he was banging on trash can lids at times. It wasn’t bad, just different. My biggest complaint with this album, and why it may have indeed been a sellout of sorts, is the lack of any guitar solos from Kirk. Here is one of the best guitarists of the past 20 years, someone known the music world over for his tremendous solos, on the first true Metallica album in 6 years, and he does not play one solo? The guitar solo had seen a greatly reduced role in rock music in the time frame between Reload and St. Anger. Did Kirk not do any solos to conform? Any true Metallica fan would say “No Fucking Way!” But, when you compare St. Anger to the most recent Metallica album, it makes you wonder.

 Death Magnetic was almost a renaissance of sorts for Metallica, a return to the Metallica many of us grew up worshipping. It was hard and heavy. It sounded like Metallica. Kirk Hammet came back with a vengeance and many of the solos sounded like he was out to prove something to everyone who had talked so much shit about him after St. Anger. Is it of the same quality as an album like Masters or Justice? No, I would not go that far. But, in my opinion, Death Magnetic was a better album than Load or Reload. The bigger question raised by Death Magnetic is this: Was St. Anger a sellout album? I think the answer to that is yes and no. Yes to the extent that it is hard for me to listen to anything the band has said, or anything anyone has said, and think that the lack of a guitar solo anywhere on that album can truly be justified. It really seemed like the band was going with the flow and the sign of the times and, to a certain extent, conforming. But, then again, St. Anger was not a sell-out because of the way the band really went out on a limb with a different sort of sound, and less polished sort of sound, a less mass produced sort of sound, so to speak. They took a chance that the hardcore Metallica fans would embrace the more garage like feel of the album and, to a certain extent, it worked, albeit perhaps not as well as they would have hoped.

So what is the verdict on Metallica? I do not think they have sold out. I think Death Magnetic was an excellent album delivered by one of the best bands ever because they did not want to be perceived as a sell-out. It showed exactly what these legends of metal are still capable of when they are focused and committed to their music and to each other. I think once the next Metallica album comes out, we will know much more. But, I feel quite confident that next album will be a reaffirmation of Metallica as the kings of metal.

Rush

 Without question, Rush is the greatest thing to come out of Canada since ice hockey. They are considered by many, including myself, as the greatest progressive rock band of all time. This is a band so immensely talented that its drummer, Neil Peart, and its bassist, Geddy Lee, are often discussed as the two best on those respective instruments of all time. Their guitarist, Alex Lifeson, is no slouch either. Their lyrics have been taught in classrooms as examples of poetry. How three men have been able to produce such tremendous music, on a consistent basis, for forty years is just astonishing. Still, when looking for an example of a band selling out, you can look at the chronology of Rush and, though it pains me to say it, there is some evidence of a sell out that took place during the bands history.

Rush’s self-titled debut album came out in 1974 and Neil Peart came on board for the second album, Fly By Night. The lineup has remained the same since then. For many years, Rush, and their musical development, could be analyzed by looking at the material that came out just prior to their live albums. For a while, Rush would put out a live album after every fourth studio album. This helps to gain some perspective on this rather eclectic band. The first three Rush albums were good, solid, classic rock titles.

But, it was the fourth album, 2112, that put the band on the proverbial map. Side 1 of 2112 was nothing short of a rock opera. It told a story and it used music to do so. It was, and still is, one of the best rock albums of the seventies. Everything about 2112 was done so well, with such passion and purpose. When the first live album, All The Worlds A Stage came out, we all heard Rush at its rawest and, arguably, at its best. And many of us were introduced to a drum solo unlike any we had heard before as Neil Peart just tore up the skins for several minutes. It was amazing. For those of us into the band at that time, the sky really seemed to be the limit.

The first album after 2112 showed the band starting to expand its sound and experimenting with even more complex pieces. A Farewell to Kings is probably best known for the very popular Closer to The Heart. But, the best song on the album is the eleven minute long Xanadu, which tells the story of an explorer looking for the fabled city, finding it, achieving immortality, and then regretting it the rest of his now endless days. There is so much going on in this song and while it does not sound much like the harder more gritty songs from the first four albums, there was no denying just how great the collection of songs on this album were. This is not the point where a potential sell out took place. This was a clear example of a band expanding its musical abilities and becoming more polished as musicians with the result being a very different sounding album from what we had been used to.

The next album, Hemispheres, was more of the same. Rush continued to write longer and more complex pieces with more depth and character to it. The Trees is probably the best known song from Hemispheres and it is another fascinating story told through the use of music. The Trees is all about the haves and have nots with oak trees representing the haves and the maples being less than worthy. La Villa Strangiato is a tremendous musical showcasing just how good the band was becoming. With elements of classical and Spanish guitar layered in between more rock based sections, La Villa Strangiato became one of the best rock musical numbers of the era.

Permanent Waves was next and it is at this point in their evolution that those screaming “sell-out” might have a point. Permament Waves focused more on synthesizers than any of the previous albums did. The songs were shorter and more poppy, dare I say, radio friendly. Spirit of the Radio and Freewill fit this mold and they become two of the bands biggest hits to date. However, Permanent Waves still had a lot of depth to it and songs such as Jacob’s Ladder demonstrate this. But, it was really the next album that helped to solidify Rush as one of the best bands around.

 Moving Pictures was phenomenal on so many levels. From the opening chords of Tom Sawyer to the ending notes of Vital Signs, Moving Pictures is one of the best albums of all time. It is one of those rare albums without a weakness. Every song was a work of art. Red Barchetta told a fantastic story. From there, you got hit over the head by YYZ, one of the best musical numbers perhaps ever composed. That gets followed up by Limelight, one of the trios’ best songs ever. The album finished up with Camera Eye, the haunting Witch Hunt, and then Vital Signs. Moving Pictures put Rush over more than any album before that. Rush followed this up with their second live offering, Exit Stage Left and this went on to be widely regarded as one of the best live albums ever.

But, after Exit Stage Left, one of the most technically sound bands ever went in a different direction and one that seemed very much like going down the sell out path. Signals, the 9th studio album, was a huge departure for the band. Lifeson’s heavy guitar work gave way to heavier synthesizer material. It’s not that Signals is bad; far from it. Subdivisions was an excellent song. New World Man grabbed Rush a lot of radio success. Analog Kid showed that Lifeson still knew how to bring it. But, Signals was nothing like Moving Pictures and hardcore Rush fans knew it.

Most of those same fans figured the next album, Grace Under Pressure, would be a return to the norm for Rush. It wasn’t. Peart started embracing a new fad of the day, electronic drums, to greater effect. Lifeson’s guitar work diminished a bit more. Lee’s synth work, however, was quite impressive. Grace Under Pressure also contained great songs, such as the title track, Red Sector A, and The Body Electric.

The next two albums, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire were more of the same. They both had some solid songs, such as  Window’s The Big Money and Fire’s Time Stand Still and the underappreciated Mission. But, both albums were heavy on the synthesizer, light on guitar, and they both had the stench of a quasi sell out all over them. The third live album, A Show of Hands, was good, but not on the same level of All The Worlds A Stage or Exit Stage Left.

Seemingly sensing this, Rush scrapped the synth heavy format and got back to what made them great. Presto and Roll The Bones sounded more like the old Rush than anything we heard on the previous four albums. Alex Lifeson was back in a big way and hardcore Rush fans rejoiced. Counterparts completed the transition as it became, arguably, their heaviest album since 2112. Test For Echo continued this with songs like Time and Motion and Limbo. Rush fans know that the death of Neil Peart’s 19 year old daughter, and the death of his wife shortly thereafter, derailed the trio for a while.

Five years later, Rush released Vapor Trails. While certainly not the best offering by the band, Vapor Trails contained no synthesizers at all. Rush had come full circle. The band hit the road for the first time in 6 years and anyone who has seen the live tour videos for Rush in Rio or the R30 tour knows just how passionate the fan base remains some forty years later. In 2007, Rush released Snakes and Arrows and their fans’ passion for the band was the center piece for the very funny bromance, I Love You Man. Rumors are that we will see a new Rush album, supposedly titled Clockwork Angels, sometime in 2011.

So, did Rush sell out in the 80’s? As much as I love the band, I would have to say…maybe. If Signals had been a one shot deal, or even if they only extended the synth driven experiment through Grace Under Pressure, one could argue that Rush was just stretching their boundaries. But, the synthesizer oriented style lasted two more albums, and a live album to boot, during a time in history where everyone, from Rush to Van Halen, was seemingly intent on getting synthesizers into every song they could. In the end, even if there was a sellout, Rush got things back on track and their musical prowess endures to this day as strongly as it did in the early 80’s. If they did “sell-out” it certainly did not impact their immense popularity with their rabid fans for very long.

SO WHAT IS A SELL-OUT?

So what exactly is a sell out? It is something more than a band’s fan base doing nothing more than whining about their heroes trying something different. In my opinion, a true sell out is where a band abandons their preferred musical style and goes “mainstream” for the sole purpose of selling records/CDs. We saw something like this with Blink-182. I loved this band after Dude Ranch. Enema of the State was more mainstream, but clearly not a sell-out. Take Off Your Pants and Jacket was probably their best album. But the 5th album, their self-titled release can only be described as a sell-out. Why? Because the critics and mainstream media loved it. But, those of us who loved the punk trio’s previous quick and poppy punk-rock songs just more or less rolled our eyes. The band split shortly thereafter and one has to wonder whether differences of opinion as to where the band should go may have led to this. It will be interesting to see what the new album sounds like and whether Blink will be back in a big way. Another example of this is the Goo Goo Dolls. Their early stuff was fantastic, heavy, melodic and truly inspiring. After being ripped off by record labels for years, it is hardly surprising that the Dolls tried to recoup some of this lost time by appealing to the masses. There was nothing wrong with A Boy Named Goo or Dizzy Up The Girl, or any of the other albums. But, the Goo Goo Dolls really, and unfortunately, deviated from their roots to make a buck. And probably the biggest example of this would be Kiss’s Dynasty album and one song in particular. I Was Made For Lovin You may be one of the makeup masters’ biggest hits. But it was a complete sell out, a song designed to go right after the huge disco market at the time. Kiss never tried anything like that again, but that one song might be the best example of a sellout I can think of.

So, this blog has focused on the myth of a sell out and why it really does not happen that often. People need to cut their bands some more slack and accept the fact that bands, like anyone else, want to expand their boundaries, try different things, and gain more musical knowledge. Music is an immense and diverse medium and so many styles have a direct influence on artists of vastly differing styles. When more people realize this, then their bands will indeed sell out…but they will be selling out arenas.

Social Gaming: Scourge of the Industry…or Source of Untapped Potential?

Social Gaming. Just say the words to the average core gamer and you can literally watch them cringe. Most of us look at Social Gaming with equal parts confusion and revulsion. But, is this a fair assessment? Is there more to this phenomenon than meets the eye? Can 17 million people per day really be that clueless? Is Social Gaming really the end of the gaming world as we know it, or are there opportunities hidden under the layers of never ending gift requests and micro transactions that should be looked at in a different light? As someone who considers himself a core gamer, but also an open minded individual, I endeavored to explore this world in the only way that made sense…by getting in the trenches and seeing what all the fuss is about. That is really what this blog post is about. It’s my investigation into the phenomena of Social gaming and to report my findings from the perspective of a core gamer.

To explore Social Gaming, one need only have a Facebook profile and away you go. Now, there are many developers of Social Games present on Facebook, but one stands out as the functional equivalent of the Blizzard of Social Gaming. You know who it is. We are talking about Zynga of course. To conduct this investigation, I decided to try out 5 of Zynga’s more popular games. What follows are my impressions of these 5 games collected over a period of several months.

Farmville

Farmville: If Zynga is the Blizzard of Social Gaming, Farmville is certainly its World of Warcraft. In January of 2011, Farmville averaged almost 16 million users each day. That’s more users each day than WoW subscribers in total. Scoff all you want at Farmville. When you see numbers like that, something big is going on. What is so great about Farmville? Not a whole lot from a pure gaming standpoint. The game’s premise is simple enough. You plant virtual crops and wait a set amount of real time for those crops to be ready for harvest. You harvest your crops and for your efforts you receive currency known as Farm Coins. Simple right? Well, the guys at Zynga must know a thing or two about gaming because if you really spend time with Farmville, you will notice how Zynga has implemented various aspects of more traditional gaming genres into the formula. The real goal of Farmville, from a true gamer’s perspective, is to level up. Each time you plant, plow, or harvest, you gain XP. Sounds familiar right? As you level up, more diverse crops become available, along with different animals, different buildings, new decorations, etc. And here is where Farmville excels. Avid Farmville users are always trying to add a new building, or a new crop, or something. Some people have developed farms that are truly impressive and very creative. In fact, the higher level players farms do not really look like farms at all as most of their crops have been replaced with buildings or something comparable. Farmville also has some other aspects that are popular in more traditional games, such as co-operative play in the form of co-op farming.

But, here is the problem with not just Farmville, but all the Zynga games. Certain items are only available by using the alternate currency, Farm Cash. You can only obtain Farm Cash by leveling up or… wait for it…purchasing it with real money. Farmville is a micro transaction machine, second only to something like iTunes in this area. There is far too much of this in the game and so much revolves around this. You can use Farm Cash to unlock crops and similar items earlier than you would if you ground through levels. In this way, Farmville almost demands that you take a shortcut. In this “Free to Play…but not exactly” gaming world in which we now live, this is nothing new. But, the way Zynga has disguised a micro transaction driven game as a “free game” and marketed it as something different to less experienced gamers treads on some dangerous ground. It is not that Social gamers are dumb or anything like that; they just don’t know how things work like core gamers do and Zynga counts on this. The other problem with Farmville is the feeling of obligation one gets when playing it. In another WoW comparison, answering gift requests from your friends can sometimes feel a lot like being in a Guild felt for many players. But, again, 16 million users per day must not mind this as they keep playing..and paying. For me, it’s a decent experience with more depth and content than one might expect. But it is a game I can only play for a few days at a time before it starts to get somewhat old.

Frontierville

Frontierville: Frontierville started strong but has sputtered as of late. It now boasts only about 6 million users a day. A good number but nothing close to Farmville. Frontierville is part Farmville, and part an attempt on Zynga’s part to introduce some quest driven objectives to a game. Frontierville is deeper than Farmville, but not by much. And make no mistake; Frontierville can be a grind with lots of frustrating moments to it. Planting crops is only a very minor part of the game, practically an afterthought, a tacked on piece of imagery designed to attract any Farmville player. What sucks much of the fun out of it is how you have to spend so much time clearing brush, or weeds, or rocks, from your land. And Frontierville uses something that Farmville does not: Energy. Each task you do uses a set amount of energy and when you run out of energy you have to either stop playing for several hours or, you guessed it, buy some more energy with real money. Frontierville is just as micro transaction driven as its big brother, but there is just not as much good stuff to buy to make it worthwhile. Frontierville does have some fun quests and managing your energy introduces an element of strategy completely absent from Farmville. Like Farmville, it makes you want to level up, although it seems more difficult to accomplish in Frontierville. But, as you do advance, the game does seem to get more interesting and diverse. It is a decent game, but not as enjoyable as Farmville.

Mafia Wars

Mafia Wars: Mafia Wars was one of Zynga’s earlier efforts and it has always been a very popular game. But, recently, its numbers have plummeted to only 3 million users a day. When core gamers see the words “Mafia Wars” we think Grand Theft Auto or Mafia II or something like that. But, Mafia Wars is not even close to that. It is a completely text driven game. Strategy? Hardly. Advancing and leveling up is really nothing more than trying to manage your energy levels and doing jobs that offer the most bang for your energy buck. Most jobs you cannot possibly fail. The Boss Fights, if you can call them that, are easy to win if you have any decent level of HP available to you. To be fair, Mafia Wars is fun and you do get a sense of accomplishment as you advance forward. The higher your level will allow you to unlock new territories where you can perform new jobs, take on new bosses, get cooler properties, etc. One thing Mafia Wars does that neither Farmville nor Frontierville do is introduce an element of PvP to it…sort of. You can fight other mafias, but this is really nothing more than either out manning a rival mafia or having much better gear than the other “family”. As for micro transactions, Mafia Wars absolutely has this in the form of Reward Points (or whatever they are calling it this week). With Mafia Wars, you can purchase some pretty good weaponry with real money to make your mafia even stronger. But, you run into the same energy problems that exist in Frontierville and the complete lack of any sort of real graphics leaves one with a somewhat empty gaming experience. I think Mafia Wars is better than Frontierville, but a good notch below Farmville.

Cafe World

Café World: Café World is really Farmville in a different setting, with some simulation based aspects to it. Instead of planting crops, you are now preparing meals. The unique concept of Café World is the “buzz rating”. Your objective is to try and keep your Café’s buzz rating high. This keeps customers coming in, which enables you to level up, which enables you to prepare new and more involved meals, rinse, repeat, etc. Similar to Farmville, your meals will spoil if you forget to actually serve them so, like Farmville, you end up with that foreboding sense of obligation to the game very quickly. Still, there is something intangible about Café World that makes it more enjoyable than Frontierville or Mafia Wars. Café World also sports about 3 million users per day. Café World also has an interesting aspect to it that will, again, make many of us core gamers feel uneasy. To excel at the game, you almost have to use a glitch. It’s not a game breaking glitch or anything like that. Still, to succeed, you almost have to trap your waiter by placing tables or stoves around him so he cannot move. What’s the point of that? Because if you do this, than meals will magically appear instantly at customers tables and your buzz rating soars. If you don’t do this, unless you have a bunch of waiters running around (usually not possible early in the game) you can’t get to all the tables in a timely manner and customers will leave giving you a thumbs down. It’s an odd concept and to be almost forced to use a glitch just to succeed feels somewhat cheap. And, of course, there are many micro transactions to be had in order to unlock things early or purchase better equipment or decorations for your Café. I put Café World a notch above Mafia Wars or Frontierville, but well below Farmville.

Yoville

Yoville: Yoville is an odd game. There is no farming involved. You don’t grow anything. There are quests to a certain degree. You can do jobs that are kind of like Mafia Wars, but not really. To me, Yoville seems more like a really stripped down version of The Sims….a really, really stripped down version. Your goal is to collect currency so you can put more stuff in your home. That’s about it. Yoville used to be popular, but its numbers dropped so much that it is not even in the Top 10 for monthly users on Facebook anymore. As with the rest of these games, there are fun moments to be had in Yoville. If you are a teenage girl, you will probably really enjoy Yoville. For the rest of us, there is just not enough depth here to make Yoville an experience that one would want to engage in on a daily basis.

Conclusion

So, what did my adventures in Zyngaland teach me? On the plus side, I discovered that most of the games had more substance to them than I thought they would. Don’t get me wrong. Compared to Fallout 3, Borderlands, or Oblivion, there is no depth or real gaming substance whatsoever to these games. But, standing on their own, there is more to do in all of these games than you might think. They do promote strong social networking so they live up to their name. You can certainly become better friends with some of your Facebook pals through these games. There is also a competitive element to the games as you will find yourself trying to obtain a higher level, or get better gear, or get that limited edition item before your friends do. Overall, I find that I enjoyed all of these games more than I thought I would, so much so that I still play all of them occasionally.

On the downside though is how so many people are getting taken for lots of real dollars purchasing useless virtual items. Core gamers will spend real dollars on DLC with a lot of substance, or new songs for Rock Band, or new campaign missions, or new maps, or perhaps a new character. Something like that. Zynga understands this, has figured out Social Gamers hot buttons quite well, and they are making a ton of money off of this. Several sources report that Social Games are now pulling in as much money as AAA console titles. This is the trend nowadays. For instance, Free Realms is hardly free if you want to experience the best parts of that game and the Zynga galaxy of games is no different. The problem is that most Social Gamers are not as educated as core gamers are as to how micro transactions work so, to a certain degree, they are being taken advantage of. Buyer beware should be the rallying cry for anyone who spends a good deal of time with these games.

But, here is the tremendous potential for Social Gaming and why it just might represent a breeding ground of opportunity for the industry. Cityville is Zynga’s newest game and this game feels a lot like a Sim City game. Cityville actually replaced Farmville as the #1 Social Game on Facebook with roughly 17 million daily users in January. If even 25% of those people turn into core gamers, you are looking at almost 4 million new true gamers that will come into the market. And there would likely be a lot of diversity within these new gamers as females and older individuals seem to make up a large segment of the Social Gaming pie. Statistics are also showing that Social Gamers are not synonymous with Casual Gamers. Most people playing on sites like Facebook or MySpace play their Social Game of choice at least once a day and almost all of them play multiple times per week. All of this is certainly promising for the industry, especially if the next generation of consoles are still years away, as many are speculating. The extra revenue would certainly be a good thing for the industry. Having more diversity would not hurt either. And this is not as farfetched as it may seem. Throughout this blog, you may have noticed several words and phrases that sound like MMOs or RPGs. Concepts like leveling up, grinding, gear and so forth are concepts integral to other more traditional genres that are present in Social Games, but very subtly disguised. Social Gamers are gamers…they just don’t know it. Certain Facebook games seem to be trying to bridge this gap by providing better, deeper, and more substantial content. Don’t believe me? Try out the game Kingdoms of Camelot. This is a real game, complete with depth and strategy, on a Social Networking site. It is a Facebook RTS in every sense of the word and it truly illustrates the potential for where Social Gaming could possibly go. There has been a lot of talk about a Civilization game coming to Facebook and you know that any Civ game, regardless of platform, is going to offer a substantial gaming experience. Yes, Social Games will likely always be micro transaction driven, but I really think that Social Gaming will evolve into something quite different than virtual farming or text based gang warfare. Once that happens, we may very well see the emergence of a new, and potentially powerful, gaming platform. Like it or not, it looks like Social Gaming is here to stay…and that may not be so horrible after all.

The Top 10 Bands Who Deserve Their Own Rock Band or Guitar Hero Game (Or At Least A Lot More DLC)

With a new Guitar Hero game set to release on September 28, 2010, and Rock Band 3 slated to drop on October 26, 2010, it would seem the music genre, after being relatively quiet this year, is poised to try and make a comeback. In June, when Green Day Rock Band was released, there was quite a bit of debate about whether Green Day deserved its own full on Rock Band game. No one really questioned that The Beatles deserved one and no one really complained about Metallica getting a GH game of its own. With the Warriors of Rock set-list now released, I started to wonder what other bands out there deserve their own RB or GH game. I came up with my Top 10.

A caveat here: In compiling this list, I took a long look at what is already out there for many bands as far as DLC are concerned. In doing so, many worthy bands were eliminated from consideration. For instance, many have said Nirvana deserves their own game. But, probably 75% of their music has already been released through DLC. Even if a compilation was made, such as Guitar Hero Grunge, and you used Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, a ton of those bands music is already out there. The same can be said for bands like The Foo Fighters, Queen, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and The Who. Also, some of the newer but popular acts, like Linkin Park, Muse, or The Offspring don’t really have enough out there to justify a full game. I figure you need at least 30-40 songs to put on a disc to pull a full game off without pulling a GH Van Halen type of scenario where you have great Van Halen songs mixed in with a bunch of stuff that makes little sense. The one band/person I left off that might be really worthy is Jimi Hendrix. Obviously, he is one of the all time great guitarists. But, when Axis Bold as Live was released as DLC, it probably made it so that you could not get away with a full Hendrix game. Maybe if they put some Stevie Ray Vaughn, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani on there and really delved deep into their libraries, then you would have a true Guitar Hero game. There are other close calls, such as Nine Inch Nails, KORN, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, or Social Distortion that could possibly be considered as well.

With that as a disclaimer, here is my Top 10 (in reverse order):

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10. The Doors- With the introduction of the keyboard peripheral in RB3, a Doors game is now quite plausible. Right now the only Doors title really out there is “Love Me Two Times” and that is a pretty sad representation for one of the best voices in rock history, Jim Morrison. There are some really great songs that would be fun to play, such as “Break on Through”, “Light My Fire”, “LA Woman”, “Back Door Man”, “Roadhouse Blues”, etc. A Doors game would also be fun if the story mode was wrapped around the life of Jim Morrison. Rising to the top only to spiral into an avalanche of drugs, booze, and women, is certainly going to run the risk of an M rating, but I think music games need to embrace the M rating anyway. The Doors are #10 on my list.

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9. AC/DC- Yes, I know there was an entire Live track pack of AC/DC released. But, I always had issues with this. For one, you could only get the track pack from Wal-Mart and it has never been released as DLC. I, for one, do not relish the thought of going into Wal-Mart for my gaming needs. Second, while the track pack is excellent, a lot of the songs aren’t up to par when compared to the studio versions. Songs like “Dirty Deeds”, “You Shook Me”, “Hells Bells”, “Highway to Hell”. Etc, are OK as far as the Live versions go, but the studio versions are probablybetter. “For Those About To Rock” is another one. Plus, there are some really great AC/DC songs MIA. Songs like “Problem Child”, “Let Me Put My Love Into You”, “It’s a Long Way To The Top”, “Who Made Who”, “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, etc., are missing and would be fun to play. And, let’s be honest here guys…who doesn’t want to play “Big Balls” with their friends. OK…that came out sounding weird, but you get the point. AC/DC is #9 on my list.

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8. KISS- A KISS RB or GH game has a ton of potential. If it is set up like Beatles or Green Day RB, you can chronicle the history of one of rock’s most iconic bands through the past 30+ years. It would start with the early makeup days, then go through their unmasked phase, the return to their makeup, super-heroish roots. KISS has always had great stage sets and I can see Harmonix or Neversoft having fun here. From a skill level, KISS songs are probably not the most challenging, but there is some great music out there, nonetheless, that we have not had a chance to play yet. Many of KISS’s biggest hits are already out there (“Rock & Roll All Nite”, “Detroit Rock City”, “Love Gun”, etc) but lots of others are missing. For instance, “Hotter Than Hell”, “Deuce”, “Heavens On Fire”, “Tears Are Falling”, “God Gave Rock And Roll”, “Black Diamond”, and many others, combined with the real “story” potential of a KISS based game, put KISS #8 on my list.

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7. Black Sabbath/ Ozzy Osbourne- True, Sabbath and Ozzy are not one and the same. But, a game based on the Ozzy led Black Sabbath that would then segue into Ozzy’s career really makes sense. Pretty much all the Black Sabbath songs we have seen so far, such as “NIB”, “Paranoid”, and “War Pigs” have been cover versions and not the originals. We have not had a chance to play “Iron Man” as a full band as it has not been revisited since the original GH. Other great Sabbath songs are missing, such as “Snowblind”, “The Wizard”, “Changes” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. You could even through in “The Mob Rules” from the Ronnie James Dio days just for good measure. But, when the game transitioned to Ozzy’s solo career, there is some real potential here. OK, yes, “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley” were on GH World Tour. But beyond that, it’s like an abyss. There is nothing from “Diary of a Madman” out there. No “Over The Mountain”, “Flying High Again”, “You Can’t Kill Rock & Roll”, etc. Other solid titles like “Shot In The Dark” are missing. “Bark At The Moon” was sort of redone for GH Smash Hits. But, there is a lot of great music from Black Sabbath and Ozzy that could be used to create a solid RB or GH title. Black Sabbath and Ozzy get the #7 spot on my list.

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6. Pink Floyd- There are 3 bands in my Top 10 who have absolutely nothing out on either RB or GH and if you are a fan of the genre, it’s quasi criminal that these bands have nada out there. Pink Floyd is the first of these bands. Now, Pink Floyd does not appeal to everyone and I know that. But, an album like “The Wall” needs to be released either as DLC or as part of a full on Pink Floyd game. Beyond that, songs like “Money”, “Brain Damage”and “Wish You Were Here” are all worthy of inclusion in a RB or GH game. Beyond that, the presentation of a Pink Floyd game would be a lot of fun. If you have ever seen the movie version of “The Wall” you can relate to what I mean. Even some of Floyd’s later stuff, such as “Learning to Fly” is worthy of release. Pink Floyd is one of those enigmatic bands that defined what rock was all about in the late 70′s and early 80′s and for this reason, Pink Floyd draws the #6 spot on my list.

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5. R.E.M.- Here is another tremendous band woefully underrepresented in either GH or RB. Basically, you have “The One I Love”, “Losing My Religion” and “Orange Crush” and a couple of other songs that are not nearly as well known. But, where is “Radio Free Europe” or “It’s the End Of The World” or “Stand” or even “Hurt”? R.E.M is one of those bands that has been around forever and has released a ton of great material, but not much of it has been put out yet. Their library is deep enough, and diverse enough, to warrant a full game and I, for one, would welcome a R.E.M. based GH or RB game. R.E.M. is #5 on my list.

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4. The Rolling Stones- During the era when The Beatles were rising to super stardom, the one band mentioned in the same breath as The Fab Four were The Rolling Stones. For over 40 years, The Stones have been belting out quality songs. On the virtual stage, we have only received a smattering of their offerings. We have gotten a few Live versions of hits like “Satisfaction”, and “Under My Thumb” . “Paint it Black” was on GH3 and “Honkey Tonk Woman” was released for Band Hero. Beyond that, there is not much. Notably absent are great songs like “Start Me Up”, “Get off of My Cloud”, “Beast of Burden”, “Hang Fire”, “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown”, “Time Is On My Side”, and “Ruby Tuesday”, just to name a few. The Stones have more than enough material to justify a full RB or GH game and if it even loosely follows The Beatles or Green Day RB format, it would be a very worthy title to add to your library. The Rolling Stones are #4 on my list.

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3. Rush- Many of us have been asking for a full game version of Canada’s finest export since ice hockey. The prog rock trio, from a musical standpoint, is as solid as they come, despite Geddy Lee’s less than spectacular vocals. Neil Peart is generally regarded as one of the greatest drummers ever. What Geddy lacks in vocals, he makes up for on the bass guitar. And Alex Lifeson is no slouch on guitar. There has been some Rush released so far. Notably, all of “Moving Pictures” is available as DLC. “The Trees” is on RB2. Vault versions of “Working Man” are available. But, wow, is there a ton of great music that has not seen the light of day as of yet. None of “Fly By Night” has been released. “2112″ is coming out for Warriors of Rock, but the entire “B” side of that album is still unaccounted for. Then there are songs like “Xanadu”, “Freewill”, “La Villa Strangiato” and just about anything else off of “A Farewell To Kings”, “Permanent Waves” or “Hemispheres” that are worthy of being released. RB3′s keyboard peripheral opens up songs like “Subdivisions”, “Distant Early Warning”, or even “Big Money”. Even Rush’s more recent songs would be interesting and fun to play. Rush has been around for 30 years now and their songs offer a real musical challenge. Rush absolutely needs to have their own game and they are #3 on my list.

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2. U2- Here is the second band that has nothing on RB or GH yet and this is truly a travesty. U2 has been making great music since the early 80′s and none of it is available. Just think of what we are missing: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “Pride”, “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “With or Without You”, “One”, “It’s a Beautiful Day”, “Sweetest Thing”…I could go on for a very long time. Bono is a tremendous singer and U2′s music has a melodic quality balanced nicely by some technically challenging sections and songs. Their songs are catchy, poppy, and yet they still know how to rock. Many people I have talked to always ask me when U2 will be available for RB or GH. I sincerely hope the answer to that is soon. U2 is #2 on my list.

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1. Led Zeppelin- It’s hard to argue against Led Zeppelin for the #1 spot. These guys pretty much made hard rock and heavy metal an accepted part of the musical landscape and none of their music is available yet. Musically, Led Zep is as solid a group as you will find. Robert Plant could sing; Jimmy Page…c’mon now…how many people play guitar with a violin bow? John Paul Jones…a great name for a great bassist. And John Bonham is one of those rare drummers who you can compare to Neil Peart. The songs we are missing just make me want to cringe: “Good Times, Bad Times”, “Rock and Roll”, “Heartbreaker”, “Immigrant Song”, “Houses of the Holy”, “Communication Breakdown”, “All of My Love”, “Kashmir”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and, of course, the song regarded by many as the greatest song in rock history, “Stairway To Heaven”. There are so many others. A Led Zeppelin RB or GH makes so much sense it is rather scary. No band out there had as much influence on rock music as Led Zeppelin. They are #1 on the list and I know many of you will concur with me on this one.

So, there you have it. Ten bands that you could easily justify as being worthy of having their own Rock Band or Guitar Hero games. If nothing else, we should get a bunch more DLC from any of them. Many of us complain that there is no innovation left in the music genre. That may be true. But, perhaps if the music being released was better and more worthy of what many of us think of when we think of rock, huge innovations might not be necessary. In the end, when Lady Ga Ga has more material available on Rock Band or Guitar Hero then Led Zeppelin…well something is just very, very wrong with that picture.

Reviewing The Reviewers

How important are game reviews? For many of us, they are vitally important, so important that we won’t even truly consider buying a game until one of our favorite sites has reviewed a game and given us some indication as to whether it is worth our hard earned cash. For others, they could care less what sort of score a game gets; they are going to buy it regardless. If you are one of the people who ignore review scores, then this is not the blog post for you.

But, for those of us who pay close attention to review scores, you may find this post interesting. Whenever I look through the posts of many people I track as far as contributions, there is, quite often, some debate as to whether a game was scored too high, whether it was judged too harshly, or whether a particular site was doing a truly good job at reviewing games. Whether a games score is too high or too low is a difficulty issue to address. Games have such a subjective element to them and beauty, or beautiful game play, is often in the eye of the beholder. Sure, there are many games out there which, unless you have a possible mental disorder or are hopelessly strung out on drugs, almost everyone is going to say as one, “Now that’s a great game!” But, for the most part, games are subject to a wide variety of opinions by those playing them and by those reviewing them. What I really wanted to do was to look at the more popular review sites and try and come up with a way to determine which one is doing the best job at reviewing games fairly and, perhaps more importantly, in a consistent manner. For my research here, I used Metacritic (the best known score aggregator out there and considered by many of us as the Bible of game scores), Gamespot, IGN, 1UP, Gamepro (Arguably the four most well known general gaming sites that also review games and provide scores) and X-Play (the best known video game show on TV today). With my panel of contestants in place, I now needed to find someway to compare them to see which one is doing the best job at reviewing games. But how could I do that?

I took a rather scientific approach to this. I recognized that all good experiments have a control, or a constant, that they look at when trying to determine certain things. There may be variables all over the place, but the control remains constant. What I decided to look for were two games I could compare with each other. I wanted them to be good games, but not great games, so there would be room for error and differing opinions to compare. I wanted the two games to be somewhat similar in game play and I especially wanted two games that perhaps shared a similar flaw or two. The idea behind this was that if a review site was doing its job properly, then the two games should have the same score, or at least have a low difference between the two scores. If the scores were wildly apart from each other, I felt this would indicate that perhaps the review site was not reviewing games as consistently or accurately as they should be. Makes sense right? At least on paper it sounds good. But, what two games would be proper to use for such a comparison.

I thought back to a couple of games I played within the past year or so and I found them. Both of these games were good games, not great games by any stretch of the imagination. They both had some great moments in them and were both what I would call action-RPGs. But, they both suffered from some serious game play issues and both had almost the exact same problems with the camera and how that flaw really resulted in some cheap deaths and making each game far less than they both could have been. The games I am talking about? Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (TFU) and Too Human.

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If you played either of these games for any decent amount of time, I think you will agree with me on this point. Both games have solid stories to them, with TFU, arguably, having the better story because, well, it’s Star Wars and Darth Vader, and an untold story between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Too Human’s story was a bit deeper, but it delved into Norse mythology a bit too much for the average gamer. Too Human was a better loot fest than TFU and was certainly more RPG based than TFU was, in my opinion. But, both games mapped much of what you were capable of, as far as action was concerned, to the right thumb stick (Too Human much more so actually) and neither game performed as well as it should have in many regards. Both games also had major issues with the camera. Half the time, you could not tell who you were fighting, where they were, or exactly what you were supposed to be doing. For those who played these games, am I right? I remember thinking, after going through both games, how two games with so much potential could be so flawed by the same design flaw. In my opinion then, anyone reviewing the games should have seen the similar problem with the games. Whether you were a Star Wars fan or not (and I am a very big fan of the Star Wars Universe) or whether you thought Norse Gods are the greatest thing ever, both games should have scored pretty darn close to each other. If they did not, then we would have to question what happened in the review process.

As for me, and utilizing how I think Metacritic would transfer my review score into a Metascore, I would give Star Wars a 69 (6.9) and I would give Too Human a 67 (6.7). Both games would score in the “yellow” range on Metacritic’s color chart, which is rather consistent with what both games actually did score on Metacritic. At my site, The Gaming Apex (TGA) for games scoring between a 6.0 and a 6.9, here is how I describe those games:

6 – 6.9: These are games that can really be considered average at best. While these games are all decent titles, and many of them may have more than their fair share of fun, exciting, and enjoyable moments,if a game scores in this range, you can rest assured that your gaming dollar might possibly be better spent elsewhere.

That’s a pretty good description of both games, although both are in the higher range of that general range. By contrast, I describe games in the 7.0 – 7.9 range as follows:

7 – 7.9: These are all good, solid, titles, but they may not be for everyone. These games may also give you that sort of “been there done that” feeling. Games scoring in this range certainly get our seal of approval, but there are a few problems with the game that results in it getting dinged down into this category.

So, TFU and Too Human fall somewhere in between the two and I feel that is a pretty accurate place for both of them. So, by my own scoring system being morphed into a likely Metascore, the difference between scores is a 2. Not bad and I was rather pleased to see that I myself am being pretty consistent with my own methods for scoring games. But what of the other sites I mentioned previously? How are they doing? Let’s find out. Please note that for the sake of consistency and because Too Human was a 360 exclusive, I am using the 360 version of The Force Unleashed for this comparison.

First, let’s look at Metacritic.

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Many people love it; many others hate it. Unlike other sites, Metacritic does not independently review games. It aggregates scores from a wide variety of sources and, using its own formula, comes up with a Metascore that gives gamers an idea as to whether a game is great, good, average, or lousy. While many of us, myself included, love Metacritic, many others say their scoring system is flawed and is not a good representation of a games true value. Well, using our two games, let’s see how close Metacritic comes. Metacritic gave The Force Unleashed a 73 and it gave Too Human a 65, resulting in a difference between scores of 8. That’s not too bad. Given the wide range of review scores many of us have seen, I am thinking that if the scores of the two games are within 10 points of each other (using Metascores across the board) then the reviewers are doing their job pretty well. So, is Metacritic an accurate gauge of how good a game is? Based on this experiment, I would have to say it does the job pretty well. So well, in fact, that for the remainder of this discussion, I am going to use a games Metascore as a means of comparing reviews for the other reviewers we are reviewing (yeah, say that 10 times real fast). By doing this, we are adding an additional level of consistency to this experiment. Onward then.

Let’s move on to Gamespot.

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Gamespot gave TFU a 75, but gave Too Human a 55, a difference in scores of 20. That is a pretty wide discrepancy. To its credit Gamespot correctly described TFU. When it works, it works well. When it doesn’t, it’s not much fun. But, Gamespot seemed to give the game a much better score than Too Human based on its lineage as a Star Wars game. I can accept that a decent Star Wars game should score better than a brand new franchise. But, a 20 point difference is a bit much. Gamespot noted the fun elements of Too Human, but noted the problem with ranged combat (which is also quite present in TFU) and seemed to really ding Too Human for the story. That’s fine, it deserved to be hit. But TFU should have been hit equally hard for pretty much the same problems. I think the 20 point difference has to be of some concern for a gamer that is looking to Gamespot as a source for a solid review. I really like Gamespot and I have a lot of respect for the reviewers and the staff. But, I was a bit surprised to discover this much of a difference.

Let’s look now at IGN, another great all around gaming and entertainment site.

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IGN gave TFU a 73 and it gave Too Human a 78, a difference in score of only 5. Now that’s more like it. You have to give the guys at IGN some real credit because they called TFU for what it was, a good action game that allowed a gamer to control The Force like no previous Star Wars game and wrapped it around a great story. But, they also recognized all too well some real level design flaws and the repetitive nature of many of the battles. Story was not enough to save TFU in IGN’s eyes. As for Too Human, IGN recognized the aspect of the game that Too Human is quite a bit better at than TFU, the RPG elements. The skill tree makes a big difference in Too Human, perhaps too much so as your character tends to become too powerful and this results in the systematic and somewhat unchallenging beat down of anything that dares oppose you. While I disagree with IGN that Too Human was the better game, the small difference in scores tells me that gamers can be rather confident that the IGN reviewers are getting it right.

Let’s now move to 1UP, another excellent all around review site.

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1UP did not like either of these games as it gave TFU a very low score of 50 and it gave Too Human an even lower score of 42, a difference in score of 8. In my mind, that is pretty consistent. Remember, we are not looking at whether someone scored a game too high or too low; we are looking for consistency in reviewing two games that are very similar in their strengths and weaknesses. 1UP was clearly disappointed with how the use of The Force was actually implemented and was equally disappointed that TFU did not, in any way, live up to its potential. I think that may be a bit harsh, but 1UP is certainly not the only one’s who felt that way. As for Too Human, 1UP was even harsher. But, did they ever hit the nail on the head with their criticism of the problems with the right analog stick and that the game relies on it far too much. While arguably scoring both games a bit too low, you have to look at 1UP and acknowledge the fact that they were very consistent in finding both games to be rather bad. As such, gamers should feel relatively confident in the accuracy of 1UP’s reviewers.

The last web based (primarilly)reviewer I am going to look at is Gamepro, yet another excellent gaming site( and magazine).

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Gamepro gave TFU a 70, while it gave Too Human a somewhat surprising 80, a difference in scores of 10. In my mind, that puts Gamepro somewhat on the outside looking in as far as reliability and consistency are concerned. It gets confusing why TFU got only a 70, even though the reviewer at Gamepro noted it was a fun game, despite its flaws, but Too Human got an 80, primarily due to the co-op aspect of the game. I agree with Gamepro that co-op is something TFU does not have, and Too Human deserves some bonus points for that. But, with all the other problems that Too Human has, wouldn’t a score of 75 have made more sense? Again, we go back to the fact that you can’t notice the fundamental game play flaws inherent in both games and find one game to be 10 points better than the other without those of us who are in the know raising an eyebrow and going, “Hmmmm…” The 10 point difference is not offensive, but you have to look at it and put Gamepro a notch below IGN and 1UP, but a notch above Gamespot.

The final reviewer I am going to review is G4′s X-Play.

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Now, look, I really enjoy X-Play. I think it is one of the more informative gaming shows out there and some of the hands on demos they get a hold of really whet my appetite for some games. I have a lot of respect for Adam Sessler and I think he is very knowledgeable. Morgan Webb is very good as well but she is too MMO grounded and I think this taints a lot of her reviews. With that caveat being said, however, X-Play gave TFU a 40 (2 stars out of 5), but it gave Too Human an 80 (or 4 stars out of 5). For those keeping score, that’s a difference in scores of a whopping 40 points. That’s simply wrong. X-Play demo’d both games leading up to their release, but they were clearly more smitten with Too Human. X-Play’s score for TFU is the lowest recorded score on Metacritic and it makes absolutely no sense. They note the great story. They note the very good character development and the very good graphics. Then they rip the game apart based on game play and bugs in the game. OK. Fair enough. But, in scoring Too Human as high as they did, they ignore the exact same problems in game play for which they eviscerated TFU. If they had given TFU 3 out of 5, which likely would have translated into a 60, I could live with that. But, a 40 point difference is just not acceptable and gamers should probably be careful if they are relying solely on X-Play to tell them whether or not a game is good. X-Play claims they give brutally honest reviews and, more often than not, I agree with them. Here, however, they are just brutally incorrect.

So, there you have it. Excluding my own review (which I would not blame any of you for discounting and saying that I was just trying to show how smart I was by coming up with my own scores with a difference of only 2), we have IGN as the most accurate reviewer, followed up with a tie between Metacritic and 1UP. Below them are Gamepro, followed by Gamespot, with X-Play bringing up the rear. I am sure this experiment I have done will be ripped to shreds by many people and I am fine with that. It was never an exact science.  I do hope, however, that for those of you who take reviews seriously, you have found this entertaining, informative and, perhaps, a bit enlightening.

Has Forza Left Gran Turismo In The Dust?

So Gran Turismo 5 is finally coming out in a few months. Instead of having the eagerly anticipated racing game in our hands by early spring, as originally advertised, we can only hope the roughly 6 month delay will make for a great game. While many of us were disappointed, the boys at Microsoft were giddy as their own stellar Forza motorsport franchise remained unchallenged a while longer. But, it got me thinking. Is Forza now the superior franchise in the racing game genre? Its a topic worthy of some discussion and it is made all the more sexy by the fact that GT is a Sony exclusive and Forza is a Microsoft exclusive. Fanboys on all sides….start your engines.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane as history is always useful to gain perspective as to the present and future. As we all know, GT did not invent the racing genre. But, in 2001, it redefined it with a vengeance. This was when Gran Turismo 3 came out. While the original GT and GT2 were fine games (the sheer number of cars available in GT2 were somewhat mind numbing) it was GT3 that was the first driving game on the PS2 that really showed what that platform was capable of. With over 30 meticulously detailed tracks and close to 150 stunningly recreated cars, GT3 blew many of us away. How many of you remember the first time you experienced the glare of sun on asphalt and said, “Wow!” I know I did. GT3 added an amazing amount of realism to the physics behind the cars, but it was the endless tuning options that made things so interesting and genuinely unique each time you played it. With so many racing events to play through, the quest to unlock more cars and better parts never got old. If you weren’t a fan of the racing genre, you were after you played GT3.

Fast forward to February of 2005, the last time we all got a true, full version of a GT game. That was when Gran Turismo 4 came out. Before I go on, think about that for a moment. It has been 5 years since a true Gran Turismo game was released. Talk about resting on your laurels! Anyway…GT4 one upped GT3 in almost every way imaginable. It had more than 50 tracks and a still incredible 700 cars to choose from. The graphics were even better this time out, even for the PS2. The physics were improved and tuning your car became more intuitive and seemed to make more sense. The career mode was even larger than before and there were mini-missions, rally events, even drag races to play around with. But, GT4 had its issues. It was delayed several times before finally being released (sound familiar?). And, its biggest flaw? No online play. True, the PS2′s online capabilities were rather lame most of the time. But, so many of us had wanted GT4 to have an online component, and we had heard for so long that it would (in fact, that’s why many of assumed the delays were necessary) when it released with no online play at all, it was a major disappointment. But, lurking on the horizon, Microsoft was about to launch a new franchise that would challenge GT in more ways than we thought possible.

Three months after GT4 came out, Forza Motorsport debuted on the original Xbox. Forza was not the first driving sim for the Xbox and games such as Project Gotham Racing and PGR2 (both excellent titles in their own right) had demonstrated what the Xbox was capable of as far as driving games went. But, Forza was different. Though not anywhere near as large in scope as GT4 had been (only about 230 cars for example), Forza was more user friendly than GT4 was. The game seemed more forgiving than GT4 for folks learning the ropes (like me). A big plus for the game was the graphics. As good as GT4 looked, the vastly superior power of the Xbox as opposed to the PS2 came to light when one compared Forza to GT4. All of that eye candy, however, was not the biggest advantage Forza had over GT4. The big advantage was the fact that Forza had online play through Xbox Live and GT did not have any online play. Again, please note that Forza was not the first Xbox racer to have online play (PGR 2 had it earlier for instance). But, Forza had been designed with XBL in mind the entire time and in really showed whenever you went online to play. It was never perfect (when is online play ever really perfect) but the online experience was very, very solid. The Xbox 360 was about 5 months away, but as the past generation was about to end, Forza had, arguably, surpassed GT already. Others would say that the online play did not matter much because GT had Forza whipped as far as modes and just the sheer depth of the games. Most of us figured that the issue would likely be decided when the next gen consoles came around.

As things would turn out, we would have to wait about 2.5 years to get our first indications as to how this would play out. About 2 years after the original Forza was released, Forza 2 came out on the 360. It improved on the original in about every way we could have expected. Obviously, the technological advantages of the 360 made for significant graphical improvements, but we also saw an improvement in the AI over the original game. Beyond that, the game had a more GT feel to it with more cars, more tracks, and many more modes than the first Forza had. The online play was improved and the online events were unlike anything we had yet seen in a driving game. There were online tournaments and, in a nice touch, your online performance would generate cash that could be used in your offline career mode. So, as of 2007, Forza had taken over as the racing game to beat and many of us wondered if/when Gran Turismo would respond.

In reality, GT5 had been talked about since the PS3 launched. Gran Turismo HD had been a teaser for many of us since the PS3 first hit the market. Thus, we all waited patiently for an official launch date for GT5. What we got instead was GT5 Prologue. Released in April of 2008, Prologue boasted only 6 tracks. But, those 6 tracks were amazing. From a purely graphical standpoint, Prologue was superior to Forza 2 with each track recreated with mesmerizing detail. Little things like store fronts on some of the tracks made the tracks something special. The game looked and felt like a GT game, but with some nice new features. Ferrari made its long awaited debut in a GT game. And, for the first time, a GT game had online play. But, the online modes felt tacked on and somewhat unfinished. Still, it was a nice appetizer for the main course, even though it felt like a glorified demo more than anything else. For GT fans though, it heightened the anticipation for GT5 considerably. But, instead of GT5, Forza stepped back in and went for the knockout.

At the end of October of 2009, Forza 3 was released and as good as Forza 2 was, Forza 3 was even better. Taking virtually everything Forza 2 did well and tweaking it to nearly the point of perfection, Forza 3 set the bar for all driving sim games that hope to supplant it. This is particularly true with the online aspect of the game where modes such as drag and drift have been honed to perfection. Yet, what Forza 3, and for that matter the entire Forza franchise does so well, is it continues to be so accessible to driving fans of all levels. Forza specializes in a customizable experience where you can make the game as hard or as easy as you like. This intangible quality is what, in my opinion, gives Forza a leg up on GT, at least for now.

So, with GT5 finally, finally, looming on the horizon, is it too late already? Has Forza left GT in its dust? Even the most ardent Gran Turismo fan would be hard pressed to argue otherwise. Forza came out of nowhere on the prior generation of consoles and truly challenged GT’s supremacy; with this generation, it has surpassed it.In this current generation of consoles, Forza has delivered with two stunning games while all GT has given us is a demo version of GT5. Yes, Gran Turismo PSP is an awesome game, especially for a handheld. But, it is mostly tracks and cars we have seen before. Until GT5 comes out, I believe the only conclusion one can draw is that Forza is now the racing franchise to beat. GT5 has tons of potential. If it can integrate a full NASCAR season mode into what I am sure will be a fantastic GT career mode, we could see a truly stellar title. If it can bring home a true 3D experience, that would be a big plus. And, if the online play is refined a bit over what we got in Prologue, GT5 should be every bit as good, if not better, than Forza 3.

Until then, I’ll keep playing Forza 3…and loving every minute of it.