Monday, February 20, 2017

Only 50% of Game Developers think Switch will beat Wii U

If the people who make video games for a living know what they’re talking about, Nintendo’s upcoming Switch console has a good chance of being a disappointment for the company. In a new State of the Industry poll by the Games Developers Conference, only 50% of 4,500 developers thought the Switch would outsell the Wii U, Nintendo’s previous console.

GDC paints that number as “optimism,” but it’s hard to see why, when the standard for comparison is the disastrous performance of the Wii U. That console has moved around 13 million units, and sales are stalled.

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That’s meager compared to other consoles of the same generation, with more than 53.4 million Playstation 4 units and an estimated 25-30 million Xbox Ones sold. It’s even more bleak when compared to the original Wii, which sold more than 100 million units over its lifetime, leading some on Nintendo’s sales team to project that the Wii U would put up similar numbers.

So, when only 50% of a pool of industry insiders think Nintendo’s next product will outperform its biggest failure since the Virtual Boy, it’s hard to take it as a good sign. 14% of respondents thought the Switch would actually perform worse than the Wii U, and 37% were unsure.

And it gets worse. On the specific question of the Switch’s most unique feature—its ability to transform from a home console to a portable system—only 19% of game developers thought the feature would be highly attractive to buyers. 48% saw the feature as appealing but not “world-changing.”

Regardless, while the original Wii’s motion control caught fire, unique features can only get you so far without a solid pipeline of games. The Wii U cratered in part because of a lackluster array of titles, and the Switch is getting off to an even slower start, launching with a mere 4 games. There’s no Mario game, no Super Smash Brothers, no Metroid Prime. Only a new Legend of Zelda game qualifies as a marquee title, and even professed Nintendo fans are venting their disappointment. And with developers already so tepid on the Switch, it may be harder to build a robust lineup in the future.

Those are foreboding signs for the system, which launches on March 3rd.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Nintendo Switch tech specs

Nintendo, unlike Microsoft and Sony, has been keen not to mention the hardware power of the upcoming Nintendo Switch. We’re mere weeks from launch and there isn’t a single piece of official information you can find that will tell you, say, how powerful is the CPU and GPU, or how much RAM it has, and so on.
Naturally, this makes fans anticipate any official – or seemingly official – documents pertaining to the Switch specs with great excitement. A Reddit post that appeared earlier today, contains a massive amount of information. The details are sourced from three, developer-only documents covering the console’s hardware specs, system features, and other devkit instructions.
The files are big, and go into great detail – as you’d expect – into each of their respective subjects. While many of what’s included may not be relevant to the general public, some of what’s there is intriguing to say the least.
Most importantly, the documents list the Switch’s hardware specs. As you can see, the Switch appears to have a quad core ARM Cortex-A57 CPU that has a maximum speed of 2GHz. The GPU is a Maxwell-based, Nvidia chip with 256 CUDA cores and max speed of 1GHz.
The details for these two appear to be different from the most recent leak from back in December, which suggested the CPU would max out at 1GHz, not 2GHz, and the GPU would only run at 768MHz, instead of a full 1GHz.
As for RAM, the Switch appears to have 4GB of it, shared with the VRAM, according to the docs. Speaking of memory, the maximum cartridge limit seems to be 32GB, and the sizes mentioned are 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16GB besides.
Outside of specs, a section titled “E-Commerce Features,” mentions that the Switch will not have support for free-to-play-style virtual currencies at launch. Support for DLC and season passes, however, will be available. The feature is expected to appear sometime post launch.
It’s important to note that the documents date back to July 2016, and they refer to the console as the NX – the Switch’s in-development codename. We’ve also not been able to verify the claims in the documents, and while they do appear official, they could be very good fakes.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Nintendo is Lazy and You Don't Care

n New Super Mario Bros. Wii's multiplayer mode, you can play as icons Mario, Luigi or two versions of sideshow character Toad. So when famed Nintendo designer and development leader Shigeru Miyamoto is asked prior to the game's release why Princess Peach wasn't included as a playable character instead, he pauses and says that it would've been nice, but that the physique of Toad more closely resembles that of Mario. "And if one of the four had a dress, we'd have to come up with a special programming to handle how the skirt is handled in gameplay," he jokes.

- a man responsible for many of my favorite games across two decades -- is just kidding about Peach's dress, but it's the first part of his comment that strikes me as interesting and even a little disturbing. He just told a room full of reporters that the only reason gamers must play as multi-colored versions of Toad instead of Peach or other beloved Mushroom Kingdom characters is because Toad has the same body shape as Mario and it was simply easier for Nintendo to recycle him.

With all due respect to Miyamoto, a proven gaming genius and innovator, that's just lazy. Either that, or Nintendo has gone off the deep end in its dogged pursuit of the business bottom line. This is not a two-man garage developer which works on games after its kids go to bed. It's a multi-billion dollar corporation with thousands of employees, many of whom have helped shape the very industry as we know it. A cash behemoth with unrivaled game-making experience. That it might even ponder recycling a character for one its most beloved and lucrative franchises so that it might save time, money, or whatever, seems ludicrous. That it actually did so is unbelievable.
Wii exists today because Nintendo is brilliant, but also because the company saw rising development costs, time and resources and didn't want any part of it. Smart business move. But for players who do value cutting-edge graphics and audio -- there are millions of us, by the way; we're not a niche, as six million copies sold of Modern Warfare 2 in November show -- it's a slap in the face and a clear case of the bottom line taking precedence.
Wii is a more powerful GameCube. It won't play high-definition titles. Laughably, it won't even output in Dolby Digital surround sound -- a feat PlayStation 2 accomplished nine years ago -- because the hardware includes only a stereo component. Nintendo created a console that it could manufacture cheaply and sell at a reduced price, which is an honorable pursuit. The side effect to this, however, is that because Wii is incapable of competing technically with its competitors, players have granted Nintendo unofficial license to coast by with a wealth of games whose presentations journey backward and not forward in time; a generational reprieve from even trying.
We all praise Nintendo for returning gameplay and not graphical pop to the forefront. Since their conception, games have been designed to be fun first and everything else second. Nintendo seems to realize that more than any other developer in the world, which is why some of its presentational shortcomings are usually overshadowed by welcomed over-compensations in control and design. But make no mistake: Wii Sports is also the product of Nintendo's bottom line and, yes, even laziness to some degree. The developer could have achieved a similarly simple, accessible visual ****with considerably more detail, but it chose not to. Wii Sports dons a crisp, clean look, but is otherwise decidedly generic, static, and frankly, archaic. Nintendo spent less time, energy and money on the graphics because it had a winning hook to fall back on, which was of course the new motion controls. Why, though, should innovation come at the expense of presentation? Because it's easier and cheaper.
There's Wii Play. It doesn't host a single experience that isn't playable for free and probably better as an iPhone app. It's a collection of lazily constructed mini-games, some of which aren't even enjoyable -- a simple technical demo of the Wii remote. And Nintendo struck gold with the title because it packaged it with a controller. It is the best-selling "game" this generation. Don't even get me started on Wii Music, a game that was so easy that it not only nearly played itself, but one whose soundtrack utilized public domain songs (because they're free for Nintendo to license) and MIDI-****music (because it's easier and cheaper to produce than orchestrated songs). The bottom line might as well have had a logo on the box.
It gets worse. Imagine an entire series of games re-purposed with tacked on Wii controls. Requires minimal effort on Nintendo's part and it's easy money. Cue the New Play Control! games. Pikmin, Pikmin 2, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Mario Power Tennis, and evenMetroid Prime 1 and 2 in worldwide territories. Some of these games -- like DK Jungle Beat and Mario Power Tennis -- are actually worse on Wii. In less than one year, Nintendo has shipped seven of these games, three of which it ported internally. In the same period, the company has developed only five new games for Wii: Animal Crossing, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Wii Music, Wii Fit Plus and Wii Sports Resort.
And really, why should Nintendo try when its strategy not only pays off by the millions but goes largely unquestioned by the fans, some of whom vehemently defend the company's every move. I've heard all the excuses. The primitive graphics of the Wii Sports series are intentional and therefore it's all right. Sure, the characters are limbless, lack fluid animation, geometry and texturing, but the game is supposed to look simple. It's supposed to be accessible, not daunting. And hey, everything's really crisp and it runs at a great framerate. Give Nintendo a pass. And so what if New Super Mario Bros. Wii plays and looks like the DS title before it? Who cares if the game's graphics aren't dazzling? It's fun, isn't it? That's what matters.

It's ironic because it is precisely the hardcore Nintendo fan who is most influenced by the company's changed practices. With the rare exception -- a morsel of food for the starving -- we are not getting the titles we want because Nintendo has hit upon a winning formula, which is to make quicker, cost-efficient software, sit back and then reap the rewards. The expanded audience doesn't read every word about the next title in the Legend of Zelda franchise. It doesn't care if New Super Mario Bros. isn't as beautiful as it could and should be. We do. And yet many of us defend Nintendo even when its motives benefit the business, not the players. We celebrate its monthly sales victories and then we re-play Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, and Smash Bros. while we sift through Nintendo's cash-ins on the way to its next big thing.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Nintendo Switch Impressions

We go hand-on with Nintendo's latest home console, the Nintendo Switch. And in typical Nintendo fashion it is at once impressive, charming, and confusing.

It was hard to not to feel a little confused watching Friday’s Nintendo Switch reveal. Although we got a good at look at the hardware and its features, when it came to the game side of things (outside of a handful of Nintendo titles) you got the impression that the system was still a long way from being consumer ready. Once the presentation was over we could only recall two titles that would be available at launch on March 3. With one of the two, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, also being released day and date for Nintendo’s current console -- the Wii U.

The wonderfully weird looking (in terms of seeing Mario run around New York style streets) Super Mario Odyssey is slated for a Holiday 2017 release. Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in April, the new and intriguing ARMS dated for some time in Autumn, and even the now kind of old The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim coming sometime this Spring.

It’s certainly worrying. Or, begs the question, why aren’t more games going to be ready in-time for launch?

Leading up to the Nintendo Switch reveal we were of the impression that Nintendo were looking to move away from the limited library that plagued the Wii U upon release, or if you go back far enough -- the launch of the Nintendo 64. During the reveal, we were expecting to be shown several original titles from Nintendo and its stable of studios to convey what the Switch was all about. In the end, we were shown two – with the more intriguing ARMS not being ready in time for launch.

The first game shown, 1-2-Switch was presented as is – a collection of mini-games to showcase the portability of the console and the tech packed into each tiny Joy-Con. Interesting sure, but it was hard to shake the feeling of Wii déjà vu. And with 1-2-Switch being sold separately, admittedly at a lower price, one wonders why it wasn’t announced as a pack-in title. But as they say, seeing is believing. So, we decided to reserve any judgement until we got to go hands-on with the console. Which we did at an event held in Melbourne, the following day.

Meeting the Switch

Seeing the Switch in person the first thing you notice is how small it is, a lot smaller than what you’d expect. And that’s not small in a negative sense, but in a sleek, stylish and modern one. It’s thin, incredibly so. And light, comfortable, and bright too. Once you see Zelda and Mario Kart running on it, it almost feels like magic. Especially when you switch between handheld mode and the console being docked and projected onto a TV in a matter of seconds.

Initially the plan was to make a by-line for Zelda, get some quality Hyrule time in before venturing out into the uncharted waters of futuristic boxing (ARMS) and quick-draw shooting (1-2-Switch). Turns out that was the plan for a lot of people, so I was left to wander around the space and take in the Switch from afar. A new open-world Zelda game is an exciting proposition to say the least, and having such a game as a flagship launch title for a new console is worth pointing out.

Plus, for a Zelda fan Breath of the Wild looks like it could possibly be a franchise best. And the trailer that was shown at the Nintendo Switch reveal almost made up for the somewhat awkward presentation that preceded it.

Instead my first Switch experience was with the F-Zero inspired ‘Fast RMX’, playing it both on a TV screen with a Pro Controller, and in handheld mode with the Joy-Cons connected to the Switch unit on each side. Because hey, it was a free booth and I was there to play some Switch. And although it was a game I hadn’t heard of before, Fast RMX was impressive. If oddly titled. And there’s something to said for testing out a new console with a futuristic driving game. One of my first experiences with the Super Nintendo in the early ‘90s was F-Zero, so in a way it felt like coming home. And thankfully the controls were responsive and the Ikaruga-style colour switching that changes your vehicle’s engine from blue to orange to go through all the different boosts was an interesting and fun take on the genre. Fast RMX is shaping up to be a solid racer no doubt, and one that we’re keen to check out again.

A Breath of Fresh Air. New Zelda!

The Nintendo Switch’s 6” screen is bright and sharp in a way that Nintendo handhelds have never been. Playing the new Zelda game in handheld mode you get the impression that you’re playing something that probably wasn’t meant to be played this way. Like a hobbyist that has modified an old console, attached a screen, and let you play a classic title in your lap. Originally a Wii U title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was quite possibly never meant to be played as a handheld title. And even though the Wii U has second screen functionality, when it dawns on you that you can play the Switch anywhere, at any time, it’s hard not to walk away impressed.

When viewed as a standard console connected to a TV, the situation is entirely different. In your hands the lush environments and wonderful animation of Breath of the Wild are gorgeous. On a larger screen, they still look great but you can see the edges and technical shortcomings. Especially when compared to consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One. In strict visual terms the Switch is an improvement on the Wii U, but only slightly so. On paper that may sound like a fatal mistake made on Nintendo’s part, but for a handheld it’s more than enough. And makes a great first impression. If played that way.

As for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, getting to play through a small chunk of the opening was enough to convince me that it’s going to be something special. Not that it needs anymore hype. But the fact that it adopts a few open world mechanics from other developers, like activating towers to reveal all nearby locations on the map, to giving you the freedom to get distracted with silly things like starting grass fires with a torch, speaks to the scope of the game. Throw in RPG and survival mechanics, classic Zelda combat and character interaction, and Breath of the Wild feels like the most ambitious entry in the franchise since its transition to 3D graphics in the late ‘90s.

But even though Zelda, and Mario Kart 8, and Splatoon 2 all looked and played great on the Switch, being a new Nintendo console meant that you should expect to see something new from Nintendo itself. And unexpected.

The 1-2 Punch

1-2-Switch is a game that offers up two-player mini-games where each player holds one of the Joy-Con controllers and take part in activities that don’t require much if any screen interaction. In fact, pretty much all the games demonstrated required players look each other in the eye. A bold, if questionable move on Nintendo’s part. That translates to quick-draw events where the first to shoot wins, a samurai game where one players swings and the other player tries to catch the sword before it strikes them. There was also milking (of the dairy farm variety), a few balance games and table tennis. So yeah, it’s not really a traditional game per se but it’s fun in its own way. And reminiscent of the wackiness of the Wario Ware series. The only downside being that 1-2-Switch looks like the sort of pack-in title that is fun for a crowd but something that would grow old kind of quickly.

As a technical demonstration 1-2-Switch is almost entirely focused on the new Joy-Con controllers. Which although tiny are impressive in that they’re more responsive than the Wii-motes in terms of motion control, and the new rumble feature accurately conveys movement within the controller itself.

It’s a shame that ARMS won’t be ready in time for launch, as it’s certainly a better showcase for the console’s new controllers. First and foremost, it’s not a glorified version of Wii Boxing. In fact, if we had to compare it to something else we’d point to the mecha combat arcade title Virtua On from Sega. Because in ARMS each Joy-Con not only acts as a fist, but a floating joystick that forces you to tilt in unison to move left or right, block an incoming attack by pointing them inward, and press multiple buttons to jump, dash, or activate a special attack. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but once you do it’s, well, awesome. And like Virtua On each fighter you choose has a different playstyle, which can be customised even further with different glove combinations. In ARMS motion control are not a gimmick, but the basis for a strategic boxing title that oozes personality.

But to be enjoyed properly, as with any two-player fighting game you’ll need all the peripherals. In this case an extra set of Joy-Con controllers, which will set you back a somewhat startling $119.95.

The Questions That Remain

As a first look we came away from the Nintendo Switch event impressed. The console itself is impressive in its size and performance as a handheld. The Joy-Con controllers may be small but games like ARMS showcase their versatility and complexity. Zelda looked great on the small screen, and impressed on the big screen too. In a lot of ways what was shown felt like a sleeker version of the Wii U. But then again, a lot of that was due to the library of titles shown, an almost best-of list from Nintendo’s last console thanks to the inclusion of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2.

Super Mario Odyssey may be coming towards the end of the year, but the plumber’s absence closer to the Switch launch makes that seem like a lifetime away. Third-party support is there, but not enough of it to make you feel in anyway comfortable. A fact that’s becoming a Nintendo console staple these days. And then there’s the price, $469.95 AUD for a machine that is noticeably inferior to the PS4 and Xbox One in terms of raw performance. And more expensive. In fact, from a technical standpoint the Switch is more PS3 and Xbox 360 than the current generation of home consoles. Also, for that price you don’t get any games. 1-2-Switch will be sold separately, a title purposely built to showcase the new Joy-Con controllers. And something that could have easily been a pack-in game ala Wii Sports.

But we also understand why it’s not. The Switch isn’t just about motion controls. It’s an amalgam of Nintendo ideas, the logical conclusion of its hardware forays of the preceding decade, from the Wii to the 3DS and even the Wii U. So, the game line-up features a little bit of everything. And by little bit we mean just that, as there’s not a huge library of content coming in 2017.

And then there’s the questions that remain. What does the UI look like? How will it perform? What sort of application support will there be? Will there be Virtual Console stuff on day one? Why is the new Nintendo Online service scheduled to debut later in the year and not at launch? Are the 25-30 games announced so far for 2017 going to be indicative of 2018 too? In addition to impressive, ‘uneasy’ would be another one word to describe the Nintendo Switch reveal. We certainly had a lot of fun playing most of the titles showcased so far. ARMS was a blast, and Zelda was, well, Zelda.

The only problem was that we were left with as many questions on the way out as we did going in.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Videogame Sales Are Fading and It’s Crushing GameStop

GameStop may need a new start. The videogame retailer released details about its holiday sales Friday, and they weren’t pretty. It’s yet another sign of the eroding business for physical games.
Sales at GameStop fell 16.4% in the last nine weeks of 2016, the company said, compared with the same period a year earlier. Shares of GameStop tumbled 9% on the news, to $22.50.
All sides of the gaming business contributed to the decline. Even the hot new Nintendo NES Classic device couldn’t make up for big drops in Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One console sales.
And the company struggled to sell new video games “due to difficult comparisons to titles launched a year ago,” according to a press release. But it’s not just that some big 2015 games did well. The 2016 versions -- like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, released in November -- did particularly poorly.
GameStop shares are down 16% in the last 12 months. Investors are paying just six times estimated earnings for the stock. That price-to-earnings ratio is 66% less than what the typical big stock gets.
There’s good reason for the skepticism. Even though 2017 is expected to bring a better slate of games, the challenges facing traditional game retailers aren’t going away. It’s tough to get people to buy physical games in stores these days when they can play games on their phone or download titles directly to their consoles.
Stores like Target and Best Buy suffer from the same game problems, but they sell plenty of other items too. GameStop needs to distance itself from all this gaming.
The good news for GameStop: It has growing non-gaming businesses. The company has had success selling Apple products through its Simply Mac stores, prepaid phone plans through its Cricket Wireless stores, and collectible items like Pokémon memorabilia.
These areas have their own challenges -- Pokémon won’t be cool forever, and sales of iPhones, iPads, and Macs all took hits in the latest quarter – but non-gaming businesses may have made up 40% of 2016 earnings. This is the sort of diversification the company needs to prioritize.
Meanwhile, there could be one more hope. Last night, Nintendo announced that its latest console, the Switch, will go on sale on March 3 for $299. A successful launch could provide at least some relief for GameStop shares.
Big Picture: GameStop had a dismal holiday season, underscoring the problems facing traditional game retailers.