Main Story: Microsoft In Japan

Imagine walking into your local Game, two crisp £20 notes sitting pretty in your wallet. You're going to buy a new game - Halo 2 you imagine - although you've read in a magazine that there's a choice of a few decent new releases exclusive to your new Xbox, the planet sized console US Megacorp Microsoft gave Santa to give to you last Christmas.

But something's wrong. There seems to be a gap in the meticulous merchandising of the store. PS2 first - as you walk in - as it's been for the last five years, GameCube at the back with the GBA, as normal, PC sulking in the corner with only a few 'nerds' for company. Where's Xbox?

Where's the giant Master Chief statue you saw in the magazine?

It's not there. Why? Because this is Japan, sonny, and no Microsoft console is ever gonna sell in my store.

This week, a couple of very interesting announcements were made that indicate this ridiculous situation - where you just can't find Xbox's in game stores in Japan - will change for their next generation console (deliberately not named because, well, no-one knows what the damn thing will be called).

Nintendo
Hironobu Sakaguchi

First off, the 'Father of Final Fantasy', Hironobu Sakaguchi, who now heads up his own dev co Mist Walker, came out saying he will develop two new RPGs for the Xbox2. Sakaguchi-san, who directed the initial Final Fantasy games before leaving Square in 2001 after motion picture Final Fantasy: Spirits Within cost the company a lot of money, is a major coup for the West Coast publishers. He represents an 'in' to the Japanese market - someone who is well respected and someone who promises to make a couple of high-profile RPG exclusives for the machine. Anyone doubting the importance of a few decent RPGs for a console's success in Japan, which, financial suits will know, is the second largest electronic entertainment market in the world, need only look at the success of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises.

Then, later this week, Microsoft announced that Yoshiki Okamoto of Game Republic and Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Q Entertainment have both signed up to develop Xbox 2-exclusive titles for Microsoft Game Studios. Okamoto, who is famous for his work with Capcom, namely the legendary Streetfighter and Resident Evil series', and Mizuguchi's work on SEGA Rally, Space Channel 5 and Rez, will obviously get Japanese gamers more interested in the prospect of buying a bigger console this year.

Of course it's obvious what they're doing here, but I like the smell of these moves. Microsoft isn't moaning about a market they're struggling to crack, they're going out there and doing something about it. Sure, it helps that they can throw a blank cheque at developers and get them to say all sorts of good things about a console nobody knows much about, but it's a start. Certainly, if more Japanese support comes, the prospect of playing an exclusive Final Fantasy on Xbox Live is a possibility and it has me salivating. Publicly.

BAFTAS

This week, the UK games industry 'enjoyed' its annual booze up the BAFTA Awards, presented by a surprisingly knowledgeable, humorous and (he didn't mind mentioning) well paid, Jonathan Ross.

Halflife2.jpg

The fantastically progressive Half-Life 2 picked up Best Game as well as six other awards. The fabulously adrenaline pumping Burnout 3: Takedown won three. GTA: San Andreas, a game I can't get into (I said it and I mean it), won nothing. Halo 2, which provides the best online console experience ever, won something, although it wasn't the Online and Multiplayer award, which is a travesty. Some great decisions - looks like the BAFTAS are gaining credibility among the glittering game hardcore intelligentsia. Beats EA winning everything GameStars has to offer anyway. However, one decision I just do not understand: Best GameCube Game - Prince of Persia: Warrior Within? You're having a laugh 'aint ya?

One thing about awards, not just in the games industry, but in the wider entertainment industry in general, is that some are bound to raise eyebrows, and it's generally the losers or the questionables that raise them. We'll call POP:WW's award a blip shall we, and move on to the excellent Newsround report on the show from, wait for it, 10 year old game fanatic Joe from London. Move over Guardian, this kid's good.

New Games Journalism

Ok, so this means nothing to anyone, except a couple of 'veteran' games journalists who live in Bath and pat each other on the back repeatedly until their hands look like they've actually done a hard days work, but I feel I may as well congratulate myself on something. NGJ, or New Games Journalism, is a recently developed method of writing about games, originating in the thoughts of 'veteran' games journalist Kieron Gillen, that sort of means we should start writing about the culture of games and our experiences in them, rather than glorified buyers' guides.

I agree, of course, but it's a difficult subject. NGJ really, at this stage anyway, appeals only to the hardcore - those gamers who are interested in reading about what it means to be a gamer. Most people in this country, well the world really, who play games only occasionally dabble in Pro Evolution Soccer, GTA and, perhaps, if their especially nerdy, The Sims. They do not, for example, play World of Warcraft 16 hours a day and go on raids in the Barrens looking to mince some Horde.

And so, while I love every word of good NGJ, want to see more of it and would hope to be able to make a living off of it one day, it's still a niche area of writing, and, as such, is only really affordable by those very same game journalists who call themselves 'veterans', and, it appears, have the skill to do it.

Perversely, I see NGJs biggest chance of success in the broadsheets - they don't go for standard specialist press review type stuff. When Everquest's economy is the 77th largest in the world, give a feature editor a call. When gamers start to stage political protests in MMOs, give news desks a call. Don't forget, nationals always pay better people!

WOW

Speaking of NGJ, this week, I have been mostly playing... World of Warcraft. So you've probably heard more about this game over the last month than you care to remember, but all I'm going to say is...

Last night, well, it was this morning really, about four a.m., a couple of hours before the scheduled server maintenance kicked in (only in unsociable hours they say - meh) me and a couple of mates in The Order of Chaos guild - we have our own tabards now! - took a little trip to a lovely place called 'Thousand Needles'. We were far from Kansas Dorothy and, being contested territory, were liable to get minced by Horde scum at any minute.

Wow1.jpg
If you're not playing this, you should be

There we were, trotting away through Horde territory The Barrens on our way to this neutral auction house we thought sounded interesting. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about - I don't care - fek off and play a proper game). Me, being a Night Elf priest, and with no hit points to speak of, get very nervous when we decide to be spontaneous and 'travel'. My companions, a sturdy Dwarf and a Night Elf rogue (they disappear, creep behind bad guys and stab them in the back by the way) usually take the brunt of the hits while I heal them and they hack away. It is a tactic that is sound, it's taken me to lvl 31 in three weeks - I'm not changing now.

We see a couple of Horde in the distance - a Tauren (huge animal warriors) and an Undead (self explanatory) of comparable levels to us. My Night Elf rogue mate immediately stealths and starts to make his way behind them. They see us. We see them. They know we see them. We know they see us.

To the backdrop of the scorched, desert like Barrens, a standoff of epic proportions ensues. They haven't seen our rogue. If they want a fight, we'll have 'em. We circle each other, preparing for a scrap, sizing each other up for a good two minutes. Can we take them? Can they take us? My heart pounds - what's going to happen? There's no saving the game - no replaying the battle. If we die - we die. At this time in the morning, a long way from home, anything can happen.

They bottle it and run, glancing back along the dusty road every few seconds. Nothing happened, but the thrill and the adrenaline was felt through my veins all the way to the underwhelming neutral auction house. Never before has nothing happening so excited me. Right after I'm finished writing this rubbish I'm straight back.

Final Note: Mercenaries

'Blow stuff up! Blow stuff up some more! When it's blown up - blow up something else! Blow up blow up blow up blow up! (ad infinitum)'

That's the essence of the TV advertising campaign that has seen LucasArts' Mercenaries reach top spot this week in the all format UK charts. And they say games are growing up . . .

Challenging it in next week's charts are this week's new releases.

  • Cold Fear (PS2, Xbox)
  • Constantine (PS2, Xbox, PC)
  • Darwinia (PC)
  • Hearts of Iron II (PC)
  • King of Fighters: Maximum Impact (PS2)
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)
  • Neighbours From Hell (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
  • Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath (Xbox)
  • Playboy: The Mansion (PS2, Xbox, PC)
  • Project: Snowblind (PS2)
  • Star Wars: Republic Commando (Xbox, PC)
  • Street Racing Syndicate (Cube)
  • Wanted Guns (PC)