A look at the week's events in the games industry
So, how much is this gonna cost me?
Now the E3 hullabaloo is but a distant memory, the real meaty questions demand answers. None are more important than how much of a hole those beautiful next-generation consoles will burn in consumers' pockets come launch. This week, whispers and carefully laid quotes suggested that that particular hole might even set our trousers alight.
First up, the 360, since that's the console we will see first. This week Microsoft corporate vice president J Allard confirmed that the Xbox 360 will be priced "in the neighbourhood" of $300, which was the initial launch price of the Xbox. He said a final decision would be made in about two months. Latest PlayStation 3 pricing speculation points at under 40,000 Yen - a figure which matches the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation's launch prices of 39,800 Yen (294 Euro). This would give both consoles a similar launch price, but with the PlayStation 3 arriving many months after the Xbox 360, Microsoft's console may well have had a price reduction by the time the PlayStation 3 arrives.
Pricing is a funny battle - albeit a hugely important one. Console publishers traditionally make very little profit on them. They hope instead to make a big margin on software bought to accompany hardware. Microsoft famously lost money on every Xbox sold. Fortunately for them, they had a certain Mr Gates' endless beer fund to fall back on. The important thing with a console is to get it into bedrooms and underneath living room televisions. Once there, they will make their money from games.
Then there's the wonderfully bitchy console price war that ensues during every console generation. The most telling move this generation was the price cut the PlayStation 2 received when the Xbox was released - a real slap in the face for Microsoft. Gradually prices plummeted as both companies vied for top spot (the Nintendo GameCube also did well at a fantastic low price). Now we find ourselves in the ridiculous position of paying less than Â£100 for a PS2 or Xbox as both enter the end of their life cycles (a traditional publisher technique to try and squeeze any life left out of a console and encourage any casual gamers who might not have considered a game machine at launch).
Looking ahead to next generation price wars, I expect most gamers who want a 360 at launch with a few decent games and accessories to need in excess Â£300 - expect a price slash when the PS3 launches as Microsoft attempt to undercut their rivals. The Revolution will be cheapest of all, of course; Nintendo aren't quite as barbaric as their publishing colleagues.
Where have all the Phantoms gone?
E3 2005 was the year of the next-gen consoles, despite the fact that only one of them had playable games at the show. The 360, PlayStation 3 and Revolution battled it out for star of the show status and soundbite heaven; even the Game Boy Micro put in an appearance. One console however, was notable for its absence: the ambitious but troubled Phantom from Infinium Labs.
This week Infinium Labs president Kevin Bachus stressed that the Phantom game service will launch later this year, despite not having a presence at LA this month. There's been so much cynicism generated over the last few years about the project that it's difficult to believe him, but the basic premise of the Phantom is a hugely compelling and interesting one. The Phantom is designed to allow consumers to buy their games via download from the comfort of their bedrooms - a bit like a mainstream version of Steam. Along with an initial layout for the hardware, a subscription fee of $19.95 per month is payable for a minimum of two years. The idea is to attract what Kevin calls 'lapsed gamers' back into the medium after years of exile.
It actually got a great reception at E3 last year when it was unveiled for the first time. Since then, however, Infinium have been beset by problems to do with vague details, no shows and cash crises. When I interviewed Kevin last summer, he was convinced the console would be launched that year in the US. A year later and there's still no release date. In fact, latest news is that they need another $11.5 million just to get the machine to market.
Even if (and it's a very big if at this point) the Phantom does become available for purchase, it's hard to see the company brand regaining some respectability from the gaming hardcore. Although Kevin told me he cares little for this demographic, it is the hardcore that generates buzz for any console.
The premise of on-demand gaming, though, is actually quite clever, and, potentially, highly lucrative. Infinium says that product development and testing is "near complete", and has confirmed that more than 20 publishers - including Atari, Vivendi and Eidos - have already signed up to supply content. If this is true, and the money needed to launch is raised, we may see a fourth console enter the fray come next summer. If not, the Phantom will join that illustrious list of consoles that sound good in a pub, but don't quite quench your thirst.
Trash is good for you
We all know that GTA is good for us
Steven Johnson's book on popular culture, Everything Bad is Good for You, is causing quite a stir. The game industry's chattering classes (probably in a pub in Bath somewhere) can't get enough of it. Basically, he says trash like games and television are good for us - they even expand our minds.
Now, I know games are good for me, but it's Mrs. Johnson, 45-year-old Daily Mail reader from Cheltenham, who needs convincing. Johnson's argument borders on the blindingly obvious, but at least he makes you think in terms of stark contrasts:
"Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularised before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuriesâ€and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading?"
It looks like a worthy read. Because games are so new, traditionalists fear them. This fear transcends into the right-wing media and we end up with headlines like: 'MURDER BY PLAYSTATION'. It can't last forever of course. How long before some other fresh faced entertainment medium replaces gaming as the latest social outcast?
Sith this, Sith that...
The new Star Wars film is number one in the charts. The new Star Wars game is number one in the charts. This despite both being the kind of entertainment that makes you mouth a very quiet "meh."
How can this be? Mr Lucas, hell bent on covering the entire planet with Star Wars merchandise, walked into the publicity regiment of his ranch empire and said, simply: 'Use the PR'. He then wrote them a blank cheque. A few months later, queue the prized five minute ad break in the middle of some drunken punch up at a wedding in Coronation Street:
1. Ad for Star Wars Episode 3 - clip of Obi-Wan fighting Anakin. Lava in background.
2. Ad for Frosties/Star Wars Episode 3 promo - same clip except ends with a shot of a box of cereal.
3. Ad for Burger King/Star Wars Episode 3 promo - same clip - ends with a shot of a burger.
4. Ad for Star Wars Episode 3: The Game - clip of Anakin chucking a lightsaber at Count Dooku.
And back to Coronation Street. In five minutes, we have learnt a valuable lesson: spend lots of money on marketing and you will sell lots of product. It appears the PR is strong in this one.
This week's new releases
- Alien Hominid (PS2, Xbox)
- Area 51 (PS2, Xbox)
- Monster Hunter (PS2)
- MotoGP 4 (PS2)
- Need For Speed Underground 2 (DS)
- Singles 2: Triple Trouble (PC)
- WWE WrestleMania 21 (Xbox)
As the summer movie blockbusters start to hit our cinemas, the games industry falls into its typical summer dry season. With the big publisher holding back their games until the crazy oversaturated holiday season, we have to make do with scraps. This week we have been a little lucky, with at least a few games worth considering.
Midway's Area 51 is one of the better First-person shooters on the PlayStation 2 (that isn't saying much) and even in the overcrowded Xbox market, the game is above average. While the opening is much better than the game turns out to be, it has a few moments that make it worthwhile. Alien Hominid is a ridiculously hard side scrolling shooter based on a massively successful Flash based web game. With a brilliant multiplayer mode tacked on, Alien Hominid is more than worth its budget price point.
Nintendo DS owners will be pleased to see a new game on store shelves. Need for Speed Underground 2 on the DS may not have the visuals to match the console versions, but reports on the game have been generally positive.