360, 720, 1080... my head's spinning

What's in a name? A lot, apparently. This week, gaming's chattering classes couldn't contain their gossiping urges, indulging as they did in excitable reaction on Microsoft's chosen name for the Xbox's successor: the Xbox 360. As soon as it had been clarified by an unnamed British source the Internet lit up. Questions began to be asked: "Why 360?" "What does it mean?" "What's wrong with Xbox 2?" and, most pertinently, "who cares?"

Why should we care what it's called? It might matter little to the average gamer, more concerned with what developers do with the machine than some viral marketing campaign. It won't matter to Mrs. Jane Walters either, the 40-year-old middle class mother from Devon who's looking for a Christmas present for her teenage son this Christmas, but from a purely marketing standpoint, there's good reason for it; a subconscious, sneaky, unseen reason; a reason why it's taken so long to confirm and why Microsoft have thought so long and hard to get it right.

It can't be Xbox 2, because then it might appear a generation behind the PlayStation 3. The word 'Xbox' had to be retained because gamers are now familiar with it; a result of millions spent by Microsoft forcing their brand into the public mindset. It would be ridiculous to waste all that good work by starting fresh with something new. So, why '360'? Some conspiracy theorists suggest this is an attempt to sabotage Nintendo's next console, named 'Revolution'. It's widely expected that Nintendo and Microsoft will be battling it out for second place in the next-gen race for gaming glory.

'360' itself implies a number of things. It could, for example, represent a console that covers all the degrees on the gaming spectrum. It could be a tool to market Xbox Live. 'Around the world online play' perhaps. Then there's the connotation that it will revolutionise gaming, similar to the effect Nintendo are hoping to achieve.

All these things have a big impact on a consoles success. It needs to roll off the tongue easily so gamers can spread the word efficiently. It needs to be simple and cool. It needs to immediately tell the consumer what it means. Does Xbox 360 roll off the tongue? Does it sound cool? Does it confuse? I've heard many alternatives over the past week, some very good, some, frankly, terrible. I can see why Xbox 2 was ditched, despite the potential for an ultra-cool 'X2' campaign, but was 'Xbox Next' so bad? It implies some future gaming utopia, is said with little effort and has great marketing potential.

So perhaps we should care then. We had trouble wrapping our heads around 'Dreamcast' in the mid 90s and look what happened to that. The inappropriately named 'Jaguar' was Atari's disastrous foray into the console battleground. Will the 'Gizmondo' take off? Some have said the Xbox 360 is the most ridiculous console title ever. I wouldn't go that far, but it's definitely not the best. It remains to be seen whether the name will realistically jeopardise Microsoft's chances of superseding Sony as having the number one console in the world. I suppose it won't be long before we're all calling it the '360' anyway. 'Mum, can I have a 360 for Christmas?' says spotty Johnny. 'Of course, dear,' says Mrs Walters. 'You know I always approve of maths equipment.'

Advertising gets in your games

Coca cola logo

This week a few quiet, but potentially very important announcements were made that could impact the way we play games forever. They both involve in-game advertisement initiatives, something gamers feel very strongly about, and publishers now demand.

This week US firm Massive Inc revealed their new advertising network. Basically, their AdServer connects with the AdClient SDK that's integrated into game engines at the development stage. Using texture replacement technology, advertising is then downloaded into the game. These can be appropriate to the time of day, gamer location and fully customised by the dev team. Publishers can even buy advertising like you would on television.

For those who don't think it will take off, Massive have Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts, Honda, Intel, Nestle, Paramount, T-Mobile, Universal Music and Verizon on board already. They want to put ads in 40 games by the end of 2005, including Anarchy Online, Mall Tycoon, Ski Resort and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

Also jumping on board the potentially lucrative in-game advertising bandwagon is game service extraordinaire IGN, who's recently announced technology will allow publishers to place adverts in games, track impressions, time spent viewing items and the types of interactions so advertisers can monitor gamer preferences.

Tricky subject this. On the one hand, I hate the idea of in game advertisements. Many fear the Big Brother style monitoring proposed by new technologies from companies like IGN. Gaming is an extremely personal experience, one that needs to be done without the feeling of being watched. If you are aware that your every move is being tracked by an advertising company anxious to sell you something, would your experience be as enjoyable?

Of course you have the utter ridiculousness in-game advertising can result in. How realistic is it going to be for Sam Fisher to take a break with Nestle's latest snack, or indulge in a few Dunkin' Donuts? What kind of fantasy based quest in World of Warcraft requires you to drive a Honda across Kalimdor, admiring the Intel billboard built into the mountains of Stonetalon Peak while drinking a Coca-Cola for a quick mana replen?

Then, on the other hand, there's a real need to have it. With game development costs spiralling as we approach the next-gen and gamer expectancy goes through the roof, other areas of revenue need to be exploited. More and more impressionable young men are playing games over watching television and listening to music, and interacting with them to a much greater depth. Games are the natural progression for advertisers to reach this key demographic.

And in-game advertising can be done well. Think billboards in football games. They're there in real life - why not in the game? Most sports games can pull off in-game advertising that actually emphasises the realistic experience. A game set in present day New York or London would not provide an accurate aesthetic if it didn't include bus-stop advertisements, motorway billboards and the like. It's the way real life is, so why not in a game?

The developers of Anarchy Online have an interesting solution. If you don't want to kill monsters with a Flaming Mace of the Intel, you pay the subscription. If you do, you don't.

If done in context I don't have a problem with in-game advertising. Just don't monitor my behaviour - it'll turn me off playing a game. Oh, and don't make my butch, battle-hardened marine crack open a Kit-Kat mid stealth either. If some cannon fodder were to see him he'd just die of embarrassment.

Future keeps the future open

Future Publishing, Bath's monopolising game magazine powerhouse, pulled out of a deal to take over rival Highbury House this week after it was referred to the Competition Commission. Here's the statement: "Future believes that it would not be in the interests of shareholders to pursue further a possible acquisition of... Highbury." In other words, they didn't want to waste six months waiting for the inevitable verdict that they wouldn't be allowed to go through with a deal that would have given them 95% of the UK game mag market.

Is this good for the game magazine industry? Certainly it is. Future, publishers of the big selling Official Playstation 2 and Xbox magazines, already have a strong grip on the market. Highbury are their only real competition. The acquisition would have resulted in a complete monopoly, although Future say it's easy to enter the game mag market, and that there are many opportunities with the next-gen approaching.

It got me thinking about the current state of the game magazine market in the UK. Go into any WHSmith and there are shelves full of the things, all screaming for gamer attention and that magic fiver. It seems oversaturated and bloated. Most titles are aimed at the same demographic - teenage boys, which increases competition even more. Only two titles aim outside this spectrum - Future's Edge and Highbury's GamesTM. Sales are slipping as more and more gamers head to the internet and the many great sites that live there. Most print game journalism is repetitive, patronising and banal (there are exceptions), and accusations fly about over bought review scores. I remember a time when the entire playground bought CVG the second is was in the newsagent by my school. Now the magazine doesn't even exist.

Future's just employing standard capitalist practice by trying to dominate the market, but competition is good for consumers. Titles rivalling each other encourage higher standards. Better exclusives, better cover disks, better reviews and better journalism. Without it, we run the risk of our game magazine industry turning into little more than a glorified buyers guide, content with comfortable and safe sales. If Future had bought Highbury, they could have set their own standards and readers would have no alternative.

Game over for UK trade shows

Ects-logo.jpg

Depressing news this week. There will be no major consumer trade show in the UK after the flagging ECTS, GDCE and SCoRE were dropped by CMP, adding to the already cancelled Game Zone Live, a result of major publishers withdrawing support. Now the British public, a public that supports the third largest videogame market in the world, will have nowhere to go to sample games before they are released.

And it had all been so promising. I attended Game Stars Live last year (Game Zone Live) at London Docklands' huge ExCel arena, and was impressed by the scale. It had attracted Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, who showed off tonnes of games to the UK public for the first time. I got to play Burnout 3, Pro Evolution Soccer 4 and World of Warcraft months before release. I'll never forget the buzz playing Halo 2 slayer on a plasma screen inside a Bungie bunker, flanked by two towering Master Chiefs. This buzz gets gamers adrenaline pumping, gets word of mouth going and, most importantly of all, gets games sold.

But, I guess, the writing was on the wall. Attendance wasn't fantastic over the weekend. Sure, EGN (Its trade only sister event) and Game Stars combined had decimated the already flagging rival tradeshow ECTS, insanely scheduled directly against Game Stars Live, but it didn't convince the big three to come back for a second year. And conversations with events teams I spoke to suggested the cost of setting up (Nintendo had so much trouble with their enclosed area they were half a day late opening) wasn't justified by consumer interest.

With E3 so huge, important, loud and intimidating, there's just no room for a UK equivalent. E3 does the job brilliantly for them. In the UK, game companies would much rather hold their own events, like Sony's Playstation Experience, than work together to produce an accessible consumer showcase. It's a sad state of affairs indeed. UK gamers deserve to try new technology and games before release just as much as our American and Japanese cousins. Now all we have left is the trade specific European Games Network (EGN), and the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival (EIEF), which takes place as part of the wider Edinburgh International Festival in August. No disrespect to these fantastic events (I attended both last year), but they aren't even in the same league as E3.

This week's releases

As always we round things off with a look at the week's new releases. Once again there are a number of titles worth looking at if you happen to have some money burning a hole in your wallet. The biggest release of the week is Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition, the street racing title from Rockstar. Fans of similar street racers such as Burnout or Need for Speed will lap this up, with its arcade action and excellent online gameplay.

World Snooker Championship 2005 from SEGA may well be the title on the list that you glance over, but it's worth a serious look. The developers, Blade Interactive, have done a great job this year and have made the best console snooker sim available. It's worth noting that the PC version seems to suffer from 'console-port-itis' and lacks the control you'd expect from a PC title. Rather strangely then, we'd recommend the console versions over the PC port.

Predator: Concrete Jungle is a pretty unknown quantity, but might be worth a gamble; reports also seem to suggest that The Matrix online is a few major patches away from being a game to consider. However, you may all be saving your money for the release of Jade Empire next week.

  • Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars (PC)
  • Cross Racing Championship (PC)
  • Death By Degrees (PS2)
  • Kao The Kangaroo Round 2 (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
  • Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition (PS2, Xbox)
  • Predator: Concrete Jungle (PS2, Xbox)
  • The Matrix Online (PC)
  • Transport Giant Gold (PC)
  • World Snooker Championship 2005 (PS2, Xbox, PC)