Previous month:
February 2013
Next month:
April 2013

March 2013

Ridiculous Fishing

Ridiculous Fishing Remember Vlambeer, the Dutch indie developer who made the awesomely silly Radical Fishing? With the help of Greg Wohlwend and Zach Gage they have finally completed their souped-up version of the concept, Ridiculous Fishing, which is available from today of Apple's app Store. The new game is incredibly deep solely in the sense of distance, and therein lies the entertainment since the fun in this game lies wholly with its absurd excesses.

The developers at Vlambeer are too young to remember the arcade games that Ridiculous Fishing has the greatest similarities to, although the influence is implicit in their tag line ‘Bringing Back Arcade Since 1887’ (or 1934 – the implausible date varies quite often). The game consists of three phases, all of which follow logically from the concept of fishing-with-a-shotgun. First, you sink your line as deep as it will go, avoiding all the fish – which plays like 1970s 2D driving games where you dodge obstacles on a narrow track. Then, after you snag something, you try and catch as much as possible on the way back up (which also has a scrolling 2D, River Raid, kind of feel) before, in the final phase, shooting them all down Duck Hunt style. The sensibilities may be classic, but backed up with contemporary computer power the results are satisfyingly chaotic. The whole endeavour is tied together with a shop for progress, which also spreads out the tutorial nicely.

Presentation throughout is a delight – the triangular faux-pixelated art design by Greg Wohlwend (Solipskier, Hundreds) is wonderfully original, and takes some of the unpleasantness out of the butcher of millions of marine animals. It would be as silly as the game itself to suggest this is a political commentary on over-fishing, though, as this is sheer arcade joy packaged in nonsense and sent flying through the air with wild abandon. There is little thinking and much overkill throughout, and this is to its merit. It has the sensibilities of an early 1980s arcade game like Anteater or Dig Dug far more than anything contemporary. The overall structure is very contemporary, though, and the game design has a nice mix of ‘ancient and modern’ to it.

Note that the gameplay proceeds directly from the concept of its fictional world – a place where lone redneck, Billy, can hurl fish a kilometre into the sky and still shoot them down with a shotgun (or a bazooka, or an orbital laser). Contrary to the idea that games can be stripped of their fiction and still remain the same game, Ridiculous Fishing would be nonsensically abstract without its core conceit of fishing-with-guns. It is this that feeds the gameplay throughout, and although it is easy to imagine tinkering with the weaponry it is implausible that this could be anything other than a fishing game. The fascinating thing about all fishing games is precisely how they take a slow, meditative activity and make it exciting by tinkering with the temporality – Sega Bass Fishing remains the classic example, which makes fishing into a race against time. Ridiculous Fishing makes it into something far more bizarre but it is still recognisably fishing, and indeed would have to be for the game to make any kind of sense.

None of this will matter to players – it is hard to avoid the clichéd pun that they will be instantly ‘hooked’, but that’s exactly what will happen! I could barely put this down over the last week as I kept blasting seafood to smithereens in order to earn better weapons to obliterate even more fish in ever more extreme ways. The weapon balance seemed a little off at times, but I suspect this reflects my incompetence with some of the guns and it scarcely matters as there is enough choice to allow everyone to find what they prefer. Other than the port of The Lords of Midnight, I’d struggle to find anything I've enjoyed as much as this on iOS – it’s as dumb as a bucket of fish guts, and all the more enjoyable because of it. Arcades may be dying but the arcade game is alive and well and being channelled by indie devs like Vlambeer and friends. A rare pearl amidst the endless sardines of iOS games.

Ridiculous Fishing is available from today on iPhone and iPad.

PS4 and the Tightening Noose

PS4 logo Last month Sony unveiled the capabilities and controller for their new console, the PS4. The second of the three competing home consoles in the next-next generation of TV-based gaming, it gave a sense of where this market might be going. Unfortunately, where it seems to be going is ever-closer to a death spiral since the economics Sony and Microsoft have fostered are now the biggest threat these entertainment divisions face. With the noose tightening around home consoles, what could possibly save this once-proud market from collapsing inward under its own vast weight?

There were few surprises in Sony's slick presentation. The new box has the same hardware and controllers as the already leaked information suggested, the Gaikai buyout allows Sony to offer a neat play-immediately demo function but nothing truly game-changing, and the new console will guess what you'd like to play and download it for you speculatively. The biggest surprise – Sony finally overcoming their need to own everything they deal with and offering social media integration – is hardly a shock given that the 360 already does this. You don’t need to be an analyst to know that the Share button will not be anyone’s reason to buy a PS4, for all that it’s good for Sony to have you promote them. Although PS3 players were quite happy with what they saw at the press event, Sony will need much more than this if they are to escape the noose.

In terms of the difficult decision about their controller, Sony played it safe. Another gamer-friendly DualShock with a slight upgrade in line with what Nintendo did (an added touch screen). Classic Sony copycat policy. The Move will straddle generations, which means Sony couldn’t bear to drop it but didn't dare to require it, rendering it a hindrance to developers and marginal to gamers. Sony might believe they could offer a Move SKU for mass market players later on, once the gamers are bedded in. I think this is a lost cause at this point, but I’d like to be surprised.

Sony’s announcement was highly anticipated by a somewhat anxious retail because the disk-based games sector is struggling right now (as high street closures attest) and there is a general sense that something is needed to inject new life into the market. This might seem surprising: although the Wii outsold its competitors by a third, the installed base of the PS3 and 360 (each about 70 million units) exceeds every previous-generation home console but the original PlayStation and the PS2, which is the biggest selling console of all time (albeit only a whisker ahead of the DS). But these apparently buoyant numbers disguise the problem created by an escalating arms race between Sony and Microsoft, which has its roots in the rather marginal PC boxed games market.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of technology markets: incremental markets like cars, flashlights and airplanes change only gradually because there is rarely any basis for escalating to another level. Slight continuous improvement is the essence of the incremental markets. Conversely, exponential markets like computers, consoles and cellphones offer giant step-changes between generations of hardware (or continuous logarithmic expansion in the case of PCs) thus encouraging consumers to replace their equipment regularly in order to keep up with the curve. However, for this to work there has to be reasons for the curve itself – hence the unholy alliance between corporate operating systems like Microsoft Windows and microchip companies like Intel who feed a mutually beneficial technology escalation with very little intrinsic benefit to the end user. Microchip technology is involved in almost all exponential markets, which does raise the possibility of this area eventually topping out, flattening exponentials into incremental markets – but this certainly isn’t the case at the moment.

For game consoles, the same kind of partnership as between OS makers and microchip companies exists between home console manufacturers and AAA game developers: the latter create demand by wowing players with what can be done, allowing the former to sell new and better machines. However, there is a problem with this arrangement in videogames: the escalating cost of developing AAA games places incredible strain upon the developers. Budgets and team sizes necessarily balloon to match the technical requirements meaning more money goes in but alas proportionately more money does not come out the other side. That’s the noose: the justification for a powerful games console is more technically impressive games that turnover bigger revenue with lower profit margins and ever-greater risk. To make this work requires something like World of Warcraft’s monster subscription model, but very few other games can pull this off. Instead, publishers find crypto-subscription models such as annual releases (possible only by fielding multiple developers), instalments of DLC, or the double whammy of premium purchase price and microtransactions that is set to become the new normal.

The most successful development companies still produce big profits – but the number of companies operating on this scale necessarily dwindles, and success is only attainable in the most over-competed, popularist genres – it isn’t coincidence that gun games dominate AAA development. The scope of the problem is indicated by the massive step down from AAA to the ‘next biggest thing’: team sizes of 250 fall to team sizes of about 25 (and then to 2.5 or fewer in the indies at the bottom!). Similar economics apply to movies, but the fall in revenue from a Summer “tent pole” blockbuster to a typical rom-com is much less stratified than in games. Crucially, the sweet spot for return on investment in videogames seems to lie primarily with teams of 25 not 250, which isn’t the case in film. It all lends a surreal quality to the upper market which makes it hard to believe that it’s sustainable in its current form.

The good news is that PS4 is much easier to program for and development budgets shouldn't need to rise by an order of magnitude this time around. But even if costs just double, there’s tremendous pressure on developers to recoup more money from games whose sales can’t  double because there is no relation between cost-to-make and audience size. It’s hardly surprising that EA are now declaring “microtransactions for every game!” The noose tightens with each generation, leaving fewer and fewer franchises competing for a bigger pot of money but without bigger returns, which is to say, unstable profitability. Ironically, indie games are more profitable than ever (admittedly on a very cosy scale) while AAA’s face an ever-taller financial cliff to scale in order to reach profitability. The latest State of the Industry survey confirms the 'rise of the indie' – there are more and more indie developers, and an ever-narrowing space for the big developers.

Don’t get me wrong – home consoles aren’t an endangered species, but they are at least threatened by the economic circumstances they’ve created for themselves. They also face stiff competition in the mass market from tablets, particularly Apple's iPad: Nintendo’s slightly disappointing sales for Wii U may reflect the number of casual players now getting their game fix somewhere other than the TV, a situation that Microsoft and Sony will also face in the near future since no home console can break even without selling to mass market players eventually. As the TV ceases to be the centre of the entertainment world and dedicated games machines lose ground to more flexible devices, the noose around blockbuster games continues to tighten. If we aren’t headed for a crash, then we are at least feeling choked. The PS4 tightens the noose just a little further, and you have to wonder which companies are going to be strangled out of the market by the constrictions this time around. Something has to give – and as usual it’ll be the big-but-not-giant publishers and the successful-but-not-huge developers that find themselves at the wrong end of this game of hangman.

What did you think about the PS4 or Wii U? Do you think the home consoles have a bright future? Share your thoughts in the comments!