Guess I should write about E3 or something…

This E3Expo will be the first that I haven’t attended in, what, 15 years? Not upset at all. I think I deserve a break from the show. I will be a little sad that I’m not/I won’t bump into old colleagues and coworkers, and yes, seeing all the constant tweets from the show floor over the next week will bug the heck out of me.

But I feel that E3 as a show is falling into irrelevancy. It’s great that we still have a spectacle, and it gives the mainstream that once-a-year “go cover video games!” thing. With game companies having more at their disposal to get their games and hardware in front of the consumers that care, a one-stop show to scream the loudest just doesn’t work in the evolved media.

The industry knows this, and I think Nintendo’s the first to really pull the trigger when they bowed out of having a pre-show stage presence last year, instead opting for a livestreamed show. People called it a mistake, but I called it smart. You still had an enormous, engaged audience ready to report on all the new details and announcements, it just wasn’t in front of an audience that would clap on the beats.

Yes there were technical hitches, but so would there be during a live show. And you control the message with pre-canned video announcements with less opportunity for awkwardness. Ever sit through one of those conferences when they want the audience to be excited for something super mundane? People remember that.

E3 is dying and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s no longer a thing a year or two from now. Companies can prep huge announcements on their own terms. Nintendo’s got its Nintendo Direct shows that are either pre-announced or on-the-fly, and guess what? Every time there’s a Nintendo Direct the IGNs and Gamespots of the internet stop what their doing and report on it…even though their readers can just watch those shows for themselves…live or archived. If Sony and Microsoft aren’t there yet with their own version of a “Direct,” they will soon.

Companies will eventually learn that they can generate their own hype for their own products without the need to spend millions at E3. It’s just not needed anymore.

The only thing E3 offers media these days is a venue for interviews. But in many cases it’s like speed dating. You get a half-hour of canned responses with very little time for follow up. Go!

I suppose I should jot down my first-party predictions for this year’s E3.

Nintendo will disappoint. Yes, the old mentality of “heavy hitting announcements at E3” will still be there, and Nintendo has proven they can announce the big guys whenever the hell they want. There will be one or two AAA titles, sure, but the message boards and editorials will dominate the noise with “Where’s X franchise? Where’s Y game? Where’s Z hardware?!” The doom and gloom will rise to the surface regardless of what’s been announced on Tuesday morning.

Sony and Microsoft? There will definitely be zingers thrown between them and I’m hoping there will be more focus on the exclusive games you can only get on those platforms. Because when it comes to system features and functions, both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are so freakin’ identical, especially with firmware updates, that when one announces you’ll be able to do X or Y feature, the other one will say “So can/will we. No big deal.” Whether it’s during their individual press conference or told to journalists in on-the-record interviews at the show.

There will be some great PC announcements, but since it doesn’t have its own ring in this circus there won’t be any PC focus, as usual. However, any third-party game announced for Xbox One and PS4? You can bet your ass there’ll be a PC counterpart…and that if you don’t see a console on the table when the game’s running, it’s a PC that’s driving it.

Thank you to all my industry pals for enduring the next week. I’ll be enjoying it all 500 miles away at my cubicle.

Where Am I Now

I think two and a half years is long enough. It’s probably time to give an update on where I’ve been, something more than just 160 characters every other day on my Twitter account (which, incidentally, is @crankycraig. But you probably knew that considering I probably sent you here from there).

Anyhoo, where to begin.

Well, in July 2013, SEGA of America let me go. Not to worry, I saw the writing on the wall months prior. Here’s the deal: my job was to work directly with 20th Century Fox and Gearbox on the marketing for Aliens: Colonial Marines. Package art, sales arrays, trailers, screenshots, soundtracks, strategy guides…anything SEGA was doing on the marketing side of the game I worked on and vetted between the developer, publisher, and licensor. I even helped out with the presentations at PAX, Gamescom, Comic-Con, and E3.

What I didn’t have anything to do with was the actual game Aliens: Colonial Marines. And while I don’t think it was a terrible game, it certainly wasn’t a good one. And considering the game’s history and the strength of the license — not to mention the claim that it’s actually canonical to the events of the incredible movie Aliens — the fact that the game was NOT GOOD was a pretty big story. And the fact that an Aliens game was being received as industry-destroying awful meant that the backlash could potentially hurt the next game in the series.

You may have seen a bit of that game. Alien: Isolation. I’ll get back to that.

So the game was received poorly. Justified. It made marketing the next part of the game a bit difficult because any peep made about Aliens: Colonial Marines would simply relight the torches and resharpen the pitchforks. Which could potentially unfairly hurt Alien: Isolation even before the game could make its debut. So radio silence was the best course of action.

By then it was pretty clear to me that I didn’t have a whole lot more to do. I rode it out, helped out on other SEGA projects where they needed it, but when E3 and Comic-Con rolled around and left me without a whole heck of a lot to manage, I knew my days were numbered. By the time I was pulled into a room to be let go, I had already packed up my desk stuff.

Layoffs still suck even when you see them coming.

It also sucked because I was really looking forward to doing more work on Alien: Isolation. But SEGA of Europe had it all taken care of. And clearly from the trailers coming out, the game looks just as amazing as it did when I had it in my hands more than a year ago. Even more so, really. And even though I know the story, I’m still going to grab it Day One because I think this game is going to be awesome in its final form.

“Funemployment.” I like the word and the sentiment. But being without a steady paycheck is still scary as shit, especially in the Bay Area when rent can be upwards of the entirety of the Unemployment Insurance check California cuts for you.

But I took the time off in stride. Went back home for a few weeks and visited family and friends. Biked all over the Peninsula, even over the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. And then started looking for work again.

I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, though. While I was still interested in writing about videogames, I know firsthand that no publication would be able to afford me. That’s not an ego thing; the pay at magazines and websites for game-focused editors, managing or not, is not fantastic. Plus, the “editorial” side has changed beyond my comfort level. I liked hosting podcasts and joining on-camera panel discussions, but that’s not my expertise. I just did it the best I could. There are way better people out there that can do the “new” enthusiast press thing than me. This is Greg Miller’s world now!

There were several interviews within the next few months, but I decided to entertain a call from a recruiter looking for a writer with games experience. Turns out it was for Electronic Arts looking to build up their copywriting team for the Origin division.

This was probably one of the best interviews I ever handled, mainly because the hiring manager knew who the hell I was. It was the first time I ever had a job interview go from “This is what the job’s like, can you do it?” to “I know who you are, and I know you can do the job.” It stopped short of a job offer as I still had to prove I had the writing chops after a three year hiatus, but it didn’t take long before I was signing all the documents and starting work as the Origin copywriter in October of 2013.

It’s pretty straightforward: if anything needs to be written at Origin, I write it. Product pages, advertising banners, social copy, blog entries, game sales, I even handle some of the user interface stuff you see in menus and warning messages.

It’s been a learning process to be sure. While I’ve always chosen my words carefully in my writing, it’s crazy how mindful you have to be writing for a company like EA. Any writing has to be translated into more than a dozen languages, and copy that works in English might not work in, say, Russian. Saying things like “Heads up!” might be perfectly readable here, but forget about it working during the localization process.

Six months later this job is a lot more involved than when it started. I’m far busier than I was at SEGA and I’ll even say that I’m writing a lot more day-to-day than I did at IGN. It doesn’t put me front and center with the gaming community, but I’m having a blast and doing something that fits my strengths.

And I can still talk about video games on things like this blog and podcasts. Bonus points. Sure, I’ve been out of the limelight for so long that if NeoGaf made a thread about where I am, it’d be nothing but “Who?” responses. But that’s okay, I’m still gaming for a living. Someone tell 12 year old me how awesome that is.

Wii U Impressions

Disclosure: My impressions of the Wii U are entirely based on my own user experience as a long-time gamer. I am working on a game that will come to the Wii U in 2013, but I have no insights on Nintendo’s Wii U plans or insider knowledge of its technical capabilities. And for the love of Pete if you’re a blogger, don’t pull quotes out of this as anything but “Craig Harris says…”


The Wii U is out in North America. My fears of not being able to secure a launch system in the first few weeks – justified after the 360 and original Wii launches of 2006 – were squashed with painless online-to-store pre-order on Best Buy.

My knee-jerk first impressions of Wii U: I’m a huge fan of this system’s potential. We’ll just have to wade through the launch jitters to get there.

It’s pretty clear to me that the Wii U hardware a hugely capable piece of kit. Yep, it’s an HD system, and yep, New Super Mario Bros. U looks fab, even if the visuals play it conservatively. The other Nintendo release, the Mii-styled Nintendo Land, is sharp, colorful, smooth and fits decently as a “current generation” videogame release. Of course, it helps that Nintendo spent the last six years on the original Wii culling gamer’s expectations of what a Nintendo game SHOULD look like in the current generation…

But the Wii U’s capabilities go far beyond the HD visuals, and in fact, the HD-ness of the system is at the bottom of my list of WHY I think the Wii U is a great foundation to a videogame success.

I very much love the GamePad controller. This is the reason for the Wii U’s being and it’s worth all the credit Nintendo’s been giving it. Obviously to make things more affortable expected niceties had to be nixed, like a long-life battery and multi-touch sensitivity, but the fact that this thing is a flawless extension of the TV experience makes you quickly ignore the differences and limitations it has to the versatile iPad device.

I love the way the GamePad feels, the way it handles, and the way it seamlessly streams console quality visuals through the air from the comfort of my couch that sits 10 feet away from the television. This controller changes the dynamics of console gaming with its ability to give players the option of playing select titles right from the screen. Parents want to watch the news? Roomies want to play 360? Beam that Wii U game straight to the built-in screen. Besides a slight drop in HD resolution there’s seemingly no downside to playing this way.

The GamePad is the champion here. It changes the dynamics of the gaming environment Nintendo created with its last generation console: the Wii got gamers up off the couch – the Wii U plants them firmly back down.

That is not an exaggeration. The Wii U does everything it possibly can to keep you seated in the living room. With the GamePad, you play your game while everyone else watches television. You can switch games on the fly. You can buy your games from the eShop. You can surf the web. You can watch Netflix. You can communicate with your friends. And you can do all without getting up off your ass.

There’s also the additional element of innovative two-screen gaming, but when people get a feel for playing for their console game on the controller, I’ve a feeling developers will lighten up their focus on the second screen in favor of giving gamers a more convenient and social way of playing their console.

In fact, that might be the real hook in third-party support. Where multi-console gamers may buy into a Ubisoft game because of their Trophy collection on PlayStation 3, or the multiplayer mob on Xbox 360, people may buy into the Wii U version simply because they can play from the GamePad. It’s a unique feature that might sell people on the Nintendo version over the other two.

As innovative and evolutionary as the controller is, Wii U is not just about the GamePad. This is the first real “social” gaming system that brings Facebook and Twitter habits to console gaming. The system lacks the Achievement and Trophy systems of the 360 and PS3, but its Miiverse integration enables that same sense of community. Years ago I wrote an IGN article that talked about how the Wii needed an Achievement system, but I need to backtrack: it’s not Achievements that the Wii needed, it was the sense of isolation that a lack of Achievement system applied. When I play a Wii game it’s a lonely experience – the achievements and trophies let me broadcast my accomplishments to those that are close to me.

Miiverse isn’t an achievement system but it applies the same feel and social functionality. New Super Mario Bros. U enables players to doodle up pictures and type up messages after certain spectacular (or unspectacular) level play, and these will be broadcast both in-game as well as in the external Miiverse “wall”. It really is wonderfully Twitter-like in its consumption, and obviously its usefulness is only through which game playing friends decide to take the extra five minutes to write up a picture or sketch up a note.

I’m reluctant to say that the Wii is “awesome” or “brilliant” or a “must-have” because out of the gate we’ve got issues. The system’s OS – mirroring the functionality of the 3DS’ clean-and-underwhelming user interface – is a sloppy mess that navigates between apps with the sluggish pace of a dial-up America Online account.

This sluggishness is the system’s biggest flaw because it severely discourages the use of all that is great about Wii U. Miiverse is “OS-level” but it takes at least 20-30 seconds to jump to this message system from anywhere else on the system. The touch-screen sensitivity wildly fluctuates from the quick and snappy main menu to the horribly clunky Internet browser – while browsing is fast, navigating with a finger is slow and clunky with clicks that sometimes register and other times do not. The built-in video chat feature is entirely useless right now because I couldn’t imagine any online buddies wanting to go through all the hoops necessary – save game, quit game, jump to home menu, boot Video Chat, wait for connection — to simply answer a random call from a player in their Friends List.

The download and install speed of digital files also needs to be worked on. Nintendo is doing everything it can to encourage gamers to make the leap from retail purchases to digital ones, but the fact that the system is entirely unusable during the lengthy installation process (nearly a half hour after a full retail download) makes it tough to encourage the move.

Then there are the not-ready-for-Prime-Time omissions with You Tube, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Nintendo TVii failing to meet the Day One firmware update. The weird Nintendo Network ID system may remove awkward friend codes but it enables some other DRM issues that need to be worked on — I’m screwed if I want to buy a second Wii U for my house because my purchases AND my Nintendo Network ID are locked to my original console.

These are all criticisms that I’m sure will be ironed out over the course of the system’s first year, and when they are, we’ll have ourselves one hell of a game system. Just as it took the 3DS a good 6 months after launch to show its full potential, I truly believe that by E3 2013 we’ll get the full-fledged Wii U experience. And by that time I’m willing to bet the fence sitter launch hold-outs will finally “get” what Nintendo’s trying to accomplish.

Oh, and my Nintendo Network ID is CrankyRoo. I only have 100 slots in my Friends List, but you can follow me on Miiverse.

3D House of Harris. In 3D!

I have now entered the world of stereoscopic 3D at home.

Er, scratch that, I’ve been in the world of 3D full-time since the launch of the 3DS. I’ve now branched out to a bigger screen.

I’ve made no qualms that I’m a 3D junkie. I got spoiled as a kid on a trip to the EPCOT center in a Kodak tech demo (freaky juggling clowns…IN 3D!!!) and ever since I’ve been attracted to depth on a flat screen. I firmly believe there’s an art form to harness in the technology, and filmmakers like James Cameron – and recently Martin Scorsese with Hugo – are paving the way from stageshow gimmick to mainstream storytelling tool.

And just like the directors embracing 3D, I’ve made small steps in getting it into my day-to-day. My set-up is modest and affordable: Panasonic’s 42 inch 1080p Plasma hit a sweet spot for me at less than 700 bucks, and though I had to put up an additional hundred to score two pair of active 3D glasses (the first-gen XpanD universal lenses) it was an investment that wasn’t hard on the wallet.

It also helps that Costco’s fantastic return policy made it a lot easier to pull the trigger – if I wasn’t happy with it I could just take it right back to the store….even though I got it online. And that, my friends, is one of the key reasons why I pay 50 bucks a year to that warehouse superstore.

I’ve already done the Plasma vs. LCD debate years ago. For me, I’m still a plasma guy, and I’ve already bought into a Panasonic plasma TV a few years back as my main living room television that’s still there today. Panasonic makes some great panels and with my previous experiences I already felt that the company earned my repeat business for when I went forward for my next set. Also, I’ve already backed my horse over Active and Passive 3D – while the passive tech works fantastic in theaters, it’s not something super awesome on current generation TVs since it uses an interlacing technique that leaves tiny horizontal lines throughout the picture. Cheap as those glasses are, I don’t like the horizontal lines.

Even after a day I knew I got myself an awesome second-room set with this Panasonic. It’s taking the place of a very good, utilitarian Samsung 720p LCD I purchased at the same price about four years ago and the difference is, obviously, striking.

As for the stereoscopic 3D support, it works and I’m very happy to now have the ability to play movies in games with depth. It’s not without its issues, though.

Pros:

Theatrical quality 3D. The depth is as good as what you get in the movie theaters using the passive lenses of Real3D. I’ve got a PS3 so I’m ready to go with Blu-Ray 3D movies like Tron: Legacy and 3D supported games like Uncharted 3…and the content list is slowly growing.

Cons:

The brightness. Yes, it makes the viewing experience a bit dimmer. It’s not “dark,” just noticeably darker.

Movie framerates. I hate upconversions in movies like “3:2 pulldown” or “motion smoothing,” so I turn it off whenever it’s set as default on televisions. But in the case of 3D movies, I may be stuck with a bit of smoothing in the output. Why? The active shutter lenses. The television has the ability to play 3D movies at their native framerate of 24 frames per second, but I’m guessing this speed for 3D isn’t as friendly as a faster 30 FPS is. 24 frame movies convert to a 48 hertz refresh rate for each eye. And just as the warning says on the screen, at this rate the “jitter” of the lenses flickering open and closed (the technique it uses to ensure the left eye only sees the left frame and vice versa) is very noticeable. It’s probably something I can get used to, but I have to pick my battle: native framerate and noticeable flicker, or no noticeable flicker but a slight “soap opera” like playback in my movies?

Game downgrading. Now, obviously to get depth in games, the output of a game has to double up its rendering time to give each eye its unique angle…and that certainly will cut into the processing. Currently, I’ve only tested two games so far: Super Stardust HD and Uncharted 3. Super Stardust looks absolutely stunning and, while I can tell a handful of compromises were made to make this explosive game run in stereoscopic 3D and at silky smooth 60 FPS, I think it’s worth the tradeoff for the amazing depth. Uncharted 3 is a stunner in non-stereo3D, and definitely a looker in 3D – but you can see the hacks a lot more easily. Character models have less smoothing – bald heads look “angular” now, for example, and there’s a bit of “jitter” around them due to less antialiasing. Scenes also have a bit of “cross talk” ghosting, meaning both eyes are seeing content from the frames they’re not supposed to. I see this on a handful of games on the 3DS and occasionally in theatrical 3D films so it’s just the nature of the 3D tech thus far…but in Uncharted 3’s case I think it’s simply due to a rushed conversion and the developers developing scenes with characters in front of colors that don’t play nice with “cross talk.”

I will still be testing out my set-up over the next few weeks, but I’m stoked that I can now check out 3D content on a much larger display in my house. This is already an outstanding 2D set with great colors, blacks, and resolution…and the added benefit of 3D gives me much more to play on it.

Good ol’ Mario

I half walked into Super Mario 3D Land expecting a rushed production: it’s a high-profile Nintendo game that was announced, revealed, demoed and released all in the same year. And at a time where the platform is having its rocky road, surely Nintendo fast-tracked it to get it to stores?

Yeah, that’s obviously not the case. I’m writing this without having 100% completed the game and it’s clear that Super Mario 3D Land got all the love and attention of the best of Nintendo’s “A” games. I’d go as far as saying that this handheld version nearly reaches Super Mario Galaxy 2’s brilliance in design and fun – it’s certainly the best handheld Mario game to date, and easily one of the best Super Mario games developed.

There’s not much “new”to the Mario blueprint here as it lifts its design from games that come before it. There’s a lot of Galaxy and Sunshine platforming, tweaked with jumping abilities seen in Super Mario Bros. 3. Lots of timed jumps on stationary and spinning or rotating platforms, and, naturally, a ton of block smashing and goomba stomping. And just like in most Mario games, deaths are plentiful but so are extra lives.

What I think is special about Super Mario 3D Land is its near seamless merging of 2D and 3D, bringing the platformer back to an old-school feel by locking players into a designed set. It was a hint of things to come in the Galaxy series: Nintendo taking camera control away from the user and letting them explore the 3D-rendered world on its terms, only giving back that control when it’s absolutely necessary. Here, the camera is even more restrictive to the point where you’re stuck with what the level designers give you. That is not a bad thing.

With a camera that’s locked into position, you now simply work within the confines of what the designer wants you to see. Back on the NES, you didn’t — and arguably shouldnt — have the freedom to stop and scroll ahead, and yet in the majority of levels you only needed to see what was immediately surrounding you. In this game, the camera is constantly shifting and moving to ensure that you’re seeing exactly what you need to see to move forward. The designers use this as a tool to build their levels, going so far as to strategically hint and hide some of the all-important collectibles. And it’s done without those weird “in between” issues – you’ll never fudge a jump because the camera was moving from position to position.

It also helps that this camera strategy plays up the 3DS system’s core strength: stereoscopic 3D. The designer is now in full control over what you see, and many times the level designer will screw with depth to show off what stereo3D can mean to gameplay. Imagine a room filled with identical blocks stacked both on top of and in front of each other, and the camera positioned in such a way that it’s difficult to see, without a perception of depth, which is in front and which is beside. With a stereoscopic display it becomes evidently clear, and Nintendo’s designers have come up with some clever challenges that play up the pairing of platform layouts and camera positions to ensure that the 3D slider on your system is turned on.

But it’s also obvious that the designers had to appease those who can’t see – or don’t want to see – the impressive depth perspective. For every “you gotta see this in 3D!” there’s a way out, either by the buttons that can skew the camera left or right or by an in-game trigger that will shift the camera to a flat-friendly view. It’s a smart give-and-take that ensures everyone can play this game to completion. Even cyclopses and pirates.

Any way you look at it, Super Mario 3D Land is a beautiful game, one that shows the visual power of the handheld. At this point you should understand that the 3DS system, just like every handheld Nintendo’s released since the Game Boy, can’t stack up to the current generation of systems on the market – but even so, there’s a lot of power in the 3DS and Super Mario 3D Land pushes it with graphics that feel right at home in today’s gaming age. It might not be running in Galaxy’s silky 60 frames per second environment, but there are times where even the most basic use of shaders can impress – reflections on rotating walls or the shimmer on the water surfaces. And it’s all enhanced with the addition of depth, and there are times you have to just sit and admire those visuals as they jut off into the distance.

Much of this game is based around what 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3 brought to the table, but not when it comes to moving from level to level. Instead of unlocking challenges in a branching path, it’s a slightly uncreative linear design that mirrors the “one level after the next” of the original Super Mario. It’s not much to complain about, and if it’s because the designers had to focusing on the level challenges over how those levels are presented then I’m hugely glad they did.

The 3DS could have used a game like Super Mario 3D Land right at launch and we could have avoided the last six months of public doom and gloom. But whether a Christmas release was always in the cards or the game just needed another few months in cooker, the 3DS got itself one hell of a system seller within its first year. It’s a must-play, absolutely.

Now let’s see what Nintendo designers can do with stereo3D-enhanced “New Super Mario Bros.” on the handheld. My money’s on a Holiday 2012 release.

I Will Never Finish an Open World Game.

I’ve known it for a very long time, but Batman: Arkham City has confirmed it: videogames set in a sandbox-like open world just aren’t for me.

I didn’t get into videogames because of open world games. I started my gaming affection with Space Invaders in the arcades and kept it going with an Atari 2600. These were designs that thrived on a simple idea, and you got your fix in quick five-minute shots. Even on the NES, Genesis and Super Nintendo, unless it was a Final Fantasy epic, games were pretty straightforward.

Grand Theft Auto arguably set the precedence of “do anything at any time” in game design. Deviate from the story and just tool around. Rack up points by stealing cars and finding the coolest jump in the world. Climb to the top of the tallest building and simply jump off to see what happens. I certainly appreciate the encouragement that I can do whatever the hell I want, and there’s definitely a thrill in finding something new outside of the designated game progression.

The problem: I find it difficult to return to the fixed path.

Maybe it’s my insanely short attention span, that I’m easily distracted. But when game designers dangle carrots to encourage me to stray from the main storyline, I’ll take it. When I don’t, I end up with this nagging sensation that pokes at me: what am I missing if I don’t jump on that side quest that just opened up for me?

Open world games have gotten so complex in their web of extraneous tasks that I find it nearly impossible to enjoy the core experience.

I think the only open world game I finished was Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, but that really doesn’t count since the designers were limited in scope by the restrictive power of the Nintendo DS hardware, and it was designed around the get in/get out environment of the portable market. My last attempt to truly enjoy an open world game was Red Dead Redemption, but by the time I got to Mexico I just couldn’t find myself galloping any further.

It’s clear to me that, after completing games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I appreciate videogames when they’re far more structured. When the designers have a set vision for their game, and don’t depend on extraneous gimmicks to make a game “longer.” I get a far greater sense of accomplishment when I play out a simpler game to the end, not when I complete a little segment from a vast videogame experience.

Now you know why I’m into handheld gaming: I feel more at home with short spurts of a linear design.

As soon as I picked up a telephone in Batman: Arkham City and opened up the Victor Zzazz challenges I realized I was in trouble. There are so many tiny tasks here that will certainly appeal to people who want their videogames to last them nearly forever, but for me, I just don’t have the focus for all these distracting little butterflies.

In short: don’t expect me to get excited for Grand Theft Auto V.

The Plummeting 3DS Price

Of all the days to oversleep and rush through the morning routine to catch the commuter train to work. Usually for a few minutes after waking I have time to hit key websites to catch up on current events that happened while unconscious, but this particular day I had to read about Nintendo’s drastic and sudden 3DS plan on the ride into to work through a series of twitters from colleagues who got to the news before I did.

I’ve been in Nintendo’s 3DS corner since before its launch because I dig the technology and its capabilities. But I never hid from my opinion that the system, and its games, were too goddamn much. And clearly the consumers have spoken with a very muted first three months. Of course, more than 800,000 systems sold stateside isn’t exactly something to scoff at, especially considering it’s a launch outside of the Christmas/Holiday gift giving window. For a New Piece of Technology with a Unique Device-Selling Gimmick, though, that’s kind of a weak start.

The drop from $250 to $170 in a matter of three months is easily one of the most severe strategic moves I’ve seen out of Nintendo. Does it smack of desperation? Sure. But it also smacks of humble pie: Nintendo was playing the egotistical Sony mindset of “Hey, people are going to want it for its name alone!” like exactly what happened with the PlayStation 3.

Just like Sony, I think Nintendo’s going to come out of this just fine with the sudden, enormous price drop.

Now (or rather, in a month) the system’s sticker shock is gone. The 3DS is an enormously capable system with a cool and unique stereoscopic feature that no other gaming device offers as a stock function, and it’s been brought down to the price of the last generation’s system. This is where it should have been from Day One.

And judging from the previous systems’ costs, I don’t believe for a second this price drop will put Nintendo in the red. We’ll never, ever know for sure, but I’m willing to bet that Nintendo’s still making a bit of change on each system at $170…and even if it’s only a small margin, Nintendo’s currently hard at work shaving costs by shrinking and swapping components behind the scenes to beef up those profits.

I also have to commend Nintendo for proactively squashing the outcry of complaints from early adopters: the Ambassador’s Club is a brilliant move to make people who already bought in feel special. The cost involved in the free NES and Game Boy Advance games is minimal to Nintendo but hugely valuable to gamers, and 20 games across Nintendo’s backlog of titles, completely at no cost to owners of 3DS, is one of the most satisfying apologies I’ve experienced out of a game publisher. I’ll be surprised if Nintendo holds up its promise of keeping these games exclusive for the Ambassadors, and I’m not going to complain when I see them hit the eShop for everyone to buy.

From my perspective, Nintendo needs to continue this apologetic momentum by embracing all the evolutionary changes that have been happening while the publisher’s been in its “success bubble.” Online persistence is a great start, but there’s not a whole lot of point when very few software titles take advantage of this “always connected” internet support. Three months out of the gate and we’ve only got two games that can be played online…and they’re both fighting games.

40 dollars for gaming experiences that aren’t much beyond what handheld gamers were getting at $20 and $30 on the DS – and under $10 bucks on Apple’s App store – is insane, and this premium needs to shift dramatically. I don’t think cartridges need to disappear, but it definitely feels like going digital distribution in the majority might be a strong strategy.

Along those lines you just can’t ignore the Apple perspective anymore: the device is open for anyone to develop for – cheaply, I might add – and the App Store is constantly being refreshed with a huge variety of cheap AND premium experiences, with the publishers in command of the prices to give them full control of sales strategies. You might not enjoy playing on a button-free device, but it’s hard to dismiss the freedom the developers have had with Apple’s devices – it’s fueled enormous innovation in touch-screen gaming and spawned a revival of retro-style experiences.

The price drop will definitely help boost the user base, but only a total shift in strategy will turn 3DS into a true success.

The Big Show

I think now that the energy of E3 has wound down, I can find a few minutes to put down my thoughts about key show moments and announcements.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t see a whole lot of the show. This was the first E3 where I wasn’t running around like a madman hitting appointments just to rush back and write a few hundred words on my experience. I had enough going on at the booth I was working because of its immense popularity.


I now see it from the other side. In the past,  during my meetings I’d poke at my PR buddies to see what they thought about stuff on the show floor, and they’ll usually look sad and dejected saying things like “I haven’t had a chance to leave my booth…” That’s pretty much what happened to me, except for the sad and dejected part – I had so much going with one game that it honestly didn’t bother me that I didn’t get a chance to see games at the show.

Sure, I wish I could have sat in on the Bioshock: Infinite demo. Or played in Arkham City. But mostly I really wanted to head over to the Video Game Museum run by my buds who take care of the Classic Gaming Expo event in Vegas. I managed to keep up on all the announcements with the help of press conference live streams and up-to-the-minute blog reports with the help of my always-connected iPad, but in terms of hands-on play I didn’t get much.

I did, however, manage to swing by the Nintendo booth and squeeze in through the back entrance to wrap my hands around the Wii U controller and check out the tech demos on the scene. Before E3 I had no knowledge about the console and its name other than the rumors that pretty much everyone was hearing through the gaming industry. Those rumors were so spot on that the reveal didn’t really offer that much of a surprise. “Yep, that’s what I thought it would look like,” was my initial reaction.

But how does it feel? I’m sure there will be cosmetic changes between now and next year’s release, but for now I dig the comfort level of the Wii U controller. The Slide Pads – the ones used on the 3DS – feel smooth and flush on the Wii U controller, and offer good response and resistance in a world where analog sticks have reigned supreme. The button placement works well, though I can understand why I’ve been reading about the awkwardness of the button and D-pad placement : holding the Wii U controller naturally put my thumbs at the Slide Pads, not the buttons, which means I had to stretch a little bit to hit those A, B, X, and Y toggles.

As an aside, after seeing the Wii U controller, in my mind went back to Nintendo’s Game Developers Conference panel. There, Nintendo revealed that, during the R&D period of the 3DS, it created a modular prototype where D-pad, button, and Slide Pad modules could be swapped around freely so that they could determine the best position for the final product. That, honestly, should be commercialized for the Wii U: give us the option to pop the buttons and Slide Pad off the unit and switch their placement.

I think the only thing I’m not sold on is the system’s use of the old-school DS-like resistive touch screen technology. While future touch screen devices are utilizing the newer and more versatile conductive touch screens, this choice is definitely the questionable one. Resistive is great for single button presses using the stylus or a finger, but it’s not very responsive for quick swiping motions and multi-touch interfaces. The move to the cheaper resistive touch screens will certainly shave a few points off the manufacturing cost (and always remember, the videogame industry is here first and foremost to make money), but it definitely makes it more difficult to bring the pinch-and-swipe experiences to Wii U and will certainly attribute to a “step backwards” feel in a world of touch screen tablets.

But I’m a firm believer that the Wii U is the proper direction for a next generation console. I think this upcoming generation is going to be a hard sell to people who have already bought into the market with a PlayStation 3 and/or an Xbox 360, two systems that, essentially, do the same exact thing. Nintendo won’t win the “power” game, so it’s approaching the transition with a brand new experience that can’t be gotten anywhere else. Sounds pretty much status quo for the company these days, and it’s a strategy that’s working well for them.

Brand new old-school Set-up

There’s no point in having a whole bunch of classic videogame systems if you’re not willing to break them out to play them. Due to limited space I’m not a gaming packrat like some of my friends, but I’ve made it a goal to get my comparatively small collection out of storage and into normal rotation as cheaply and with as little clutter as humanly possible.

Today, I’m nearly 100 percent there.

Now, I could have simply hooked these systems up to my living room HDTV, but anyone can tell you that anything running in a composite or RF signal looks like complete and utter ass on an LCD or Plasma. CRT really the only way to go, and luckily I had a bunch of Sony 13 inch Trinitrons laying around from a extracurricular project I was working on in my final days at IGN.

I picked the best of the bunch and brought it out of the garage to be my gaming television. I recycled the rest because I didn’t get a single bite on Craigslist trying to sell these things.

Now comes the fun part: where to host the games. It all starts with a trip to Ikea. I found the Micke desk perfect for my little project. Not only does it have a little gutter underneath to move cables out of the way, there’s a compartment that can hold either a tower computer case or three shelving units.

Two hours of Swedish-style construction later, I was ready to rock. Television? Check. Systems? Now out of storage and ready to roll.

In the bottom compartment I put a six-outlet power strip. Years ago, SEGA put out a licensed strip that had its outlets spread out to accommodate the wider power packs of the then-current generation game systems. This was very helpful in getting all the systems plugged into the same strip.

Now, this desk isn’t super ideal for certain systems. The classic Genesis, for example, doesn’t fit inside the compartment in its natural orientation, so I had to stuff it in sideways. Considering I’ll be keeping the door closed on the cubby area it doesn’t really matter which direction it’s facing. I also put the Saturn and the Dreamcast on the same shelf, so I’ll admit all the systems aren’t super accessible.

To get all the systems hooked up to a single television, you’ll need a switchbox. Composite switchers are still surprisingly pricey, about 20 bucks for a four input/one output box. But I quickly ran out of plugs, even with my top-loading NES system hooked up to the television RF (the system lacks composite output, removed to make the unit cheaper). I found a very cheap secondary switcher at Big Lots. This unit takes three inputs and outputs once and uses a really cheezy slider switch. But it’s good enough to plug three systems into one of the inputs of my original switchbox. These switchers are mounted on the side of the desk, hidden from view and keeping things looking neat when it’s anything but. Just don’t look directly into the spaghetti and you’ll be fine.

To keep any additional clutter down, I’m putting the controllers away when not in use. The wide slide-out drawer of this Ikea desk does that job quite nicely. The secondary drawer is used for games in my regular gaming rotation, but it’s quite small so I’ll have to find a secondary storage bin.

All told, I have my NES, Super NES, Genesis, Saturn, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast all hooked up and ready to play, all in a tidy out of the way 42×20 footprint. Like I said, it’s nothing like what you’re going to find in some ubercollector’s house, but it’s my little gaming nook and I’m proud of it. There’s still room for improvement, but now I can go back to playing Pilotwings 64 and the original Star Fox the way they were meant to be played.

Welcome to the Next Level

I think one of the most frustrating things about leaving IGN was that I didn’t have a very good answer for my most frequently asked question. “Where are you going next?” was asked so much by so many people, and honestly, “freelance and consulting work” isn’t exactly the most interesting or glamorous response.

But now I have an answer, or a partial one anyway: starting this Monday, I work for SEGA.

I’m sure it’s kosher to talk about what I’ll be doing, but I’m going to hold off simply because it would feel weird laying out my job before I even start my first day.

Here’s the poetry of it all: people might remember that I was hired as the Saturnworld editor for the Imagine Games Network. I started at IGN in 1997 to write about SEGA games, and now, a decade and a half later, I’m working on SEGA games.

I’ve always wanted to break out into game development, and over the course of nearly 15 years at IGN developer buds of mine have wondered when I would make the move. I can see some editorial folks, awesome guys like Jeff Gerstmann, Chris Kohler, and Andy Eddy, doing the enthusiast gamer thing until their thumbs fall off, but for me I was starting to get antsy. It didn’t help that my tight group slowly started to depart about a year and change ago, a lot of great IGN personalities hopped off for other things and it started to poke at me. Casamassina, Bozon, Roper, Dunham, Clayman, Brudvig, Ahern. These guys are surviving beyond IGN and it’s time I did the same.

But for someone that has no programming or artistic skills, and is a hack writer, options are limited. After a six month break, though, I landed something I think is perfect for my skills and interest, and will make a great branching point for my gaming career. I’m glad I don’t have to leave this industry because I’ve made too many friends to simply up and try something else.

Here’s to Monday! I’ll try not to screw it up.