Monday, 11 June 2012

No one pays $60 to go to a funeral.

Just how real is "realistic" and more importantly how realistic do you want it, If video games are a form of entertainment then shouldn't their primary purpose be to entertain?
Specifically I'm talking about military based FPS titles, Gamespot writer Tom McShea penned an 800 word article based on his findings at E3 for Electronic Arts upcoming shooter Medal of Honor:Warfighter, McShea clearly wasn't happy about the level of realism and stated that regenerating health and respawning teammates trivialised the sacrifices that the game professes to honor. Producer Greg Goodrich to his credit pointed out that Medal of Honor: Warfighter makes no "realistic" claim—it is simply "authentic" in terms of the tools, weapons, uniforms, dialogue and other supporting features depicted.
Medal of Honor: Warfighter will come with a "hardcore" mode that strips out the regenerating health but I for one would not want to see this as a default option as suggested by McShea. How realistic do we really want military FPS titles to be, do we continue to acknowledge that the taking of another life is indeed horrific and profound but remove that shocking emotional effect from video game entertainment to protect the viability of the product or do we include it at the expense of taste and economic success?

Not a week goes by when we don't hear on the news that another soldier has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, the Taliban's current preferred weapon of choice but my question for Mr McShea is does he want the horrific realism of injuries caused in combat to be reflected in entertainment products like military genre  video games. Will the inclusion of seeing a young soldier screaming in incredible pain with both legs missing below the knee whilst his uniform is on fire bring anything new or do anything more to reflect the realism in war. I know for a fact I don't want that level of realism in my games, that doesn't mean I'm not aware of the sacrifices our soldiers are making or even makes light of the life changing injuries that have a devastating effect on the physical and mental state of our veterans.
If I get shot two or three times in one instance on a real battlefield, chances are I'm either going to be dead or seriously injured, maybe even paralysed. I really don't believe that including the realism of life changing wounds in a battlefield situation is going to do anything for FPS games. So what are we talking about here?, we get shot in the game, fall to the ground bleeding from three 7.62mm rounds that ripped into us from a compound seventy metres away, then we wait for a team player posing as a medic to come over because we're mashing the call for help button like crazy. 3 mins later he arrives having taken the long way round from the construction site(Battlefield 3), my game is now on hold as I'm still on the floor, my joypad is vibrating and I'm still bleeding. Okay so now we've called for a medevac from the aircraft carrier and one of my team mates (who I don't know) needs to run out into the open and pop smoke for the chopper to find us in the Gulf of Oman map somewhere by veterans retreat, that's another 5 mins before the chopper can safely  land and still I'm on the floor and can't get back into the game. Turns out that my main artery is ripped and I'm bleeding internally, medic's got to cut me open and clamp it but I need to stay conscious that's another 2 mins spent on a bloody floor with med packs, plasma and crap everywhere. All the while I'm using up one medic, one guy popping the smoke and probably another three team mates to secure the landing zone. Is this the realism we're talking about? because so far I've been in the game 9 mins and on the floor 8 mins unable to play.
Video games are as stated at the top of this article entertainment but they are also a business, there are investors, there is a product, there is a consumer and there is a profit to be made.
Under no circumstmances am I remotely trivialising the sacrifices made by serving soldiers when I say that, but that is the fact, a brand and a product has to have appeal in order for people to buy it. EA's Medal of Honor reboot in 2010 was heavily criticised as being too realistic with the military jargon that it went against the product, that also calling the enemy "the Taliban" was also wrong, but hang on, I thought you guys wanted realism, I thought you wanted to follow proper radio protocol and all the glossy tier one chatter didn't you?
In the single player campaign for Battlefield 3 you experience in first person view your own execution at the hands of muslim extremists, they toy with you in front of a camera set up to film the act which in this case is your throat being cut. I did feel uncomfortable while playing it, it made me slightly uneasy but its because I'd seen the 2004 Ken Bigley video, a barbaric and inhumane act as you can imagine, an innocent man having his head cut off on video for all to see.
God I wish health regeneration did exist in our daily lives, perhaps then those four hollow point bullets fired by Mark David Chapman into John Lennon's back wouldn't have been felt for generations since. Do we really need to understand the complexities of soft tissue trauma caused by hollow point rounds in order to appreciate the dangers of firefights while playing a game on xbox Live on a Saturday night?

Developers have a huge responsibility for product content, finding a perfect balance and doing so with a  level of taste that does not offend is no easy task.If I play Battlefield 3 it really doesn't bother me that when I destroy a tank the opposing player / occupant doesn't tumble out of the hatch with his uniform on fire with the skin melting from his face, I don't necessarily require that specific level of detail to realise in real life that is what does happen. I'm more than happy to have in-game characters with the same level of speech and expression as LA Noire, I'm quite happy to have 5 times more collateral damage to objects in games and I'm as happy as Larry to have an unrivalled selection of firearms and attachments and medals to obtain. Give me an Osprey I can fly with the whole multiplayer team on-board, give me access to each and every floor and building in the multiplayer map and all at the sacrifice of experiencing what real bullets do to real bodies, that is more than fine with me.Game play and the complexities of game design mean that there needs to be a degree of flow to how games are played, sometimes this is done at the creative expense of what reality actually proves otherwise. This balance is a paper thin line that developers are challenged with staying within, not just for the sake of game play but as an entertainment product that won't offend because its being seen to trivialise active duty soldiers in combat situations.I'd very much like to know where Tom McShea was when EA released Medal of Honor Allied Assault, did the lack of combat realism and the fact we weren't exposed to seeing 19 year old American boys screaming for their mothers with their lower intestines on their lap on Omaha Beach make this product a poor one?, depicting a place where over two thousand soldiers were gunned down in the surf in an attempt to storm 600 yards of beach, did that mock the actual veterans that went through it all? Did Mr McShea criticise Mr Speilberg for Saving Private Ryan, I mean, that's a movie right?, another entertainment product where Tom Hanks probably had a personal assistant bring him hot coffee between takes of storming up that bloody beach for the fifth time in a morning. That doesn't mean Tom Hanks didn't understand or appreciate any less the magnitude of the horror one morning in June 1944.
Tom McShea's article does raise some interesting points, unfortunately without actually suggesting any alternatives. Real soldiers don't regenerate health over time, yes we all get that Mr McShea but what is it you really want, what level of realism do you want because no one pays $60 to go to a funeral?

Tom McShea's original article can be read here

Black Ops 2: A franchise leaps too far.

It had a child actor completely in over his head, a creature with a voice that just made you want to stab yourself in the eyes with a rusty fork and story arcs which proved all along that the director had been making it all up as he went along. Episode One of the Star Wars franchise was something I had waited 16 years for. I remember feeling quite excited that ol George Lucas, he of chequered shirt collection had devised for us all this time round, eager I was to see what had gone before and what new avenues of storytelling could enrich my most favorite of all franchises.
Enrich it did not, not in the slightest, I had merely matured over the 16 years it took to re-visit Tatooine not completely taken leave of my senses George. Needless to say the Episode One cinema outing with my closest family had been about as entertaining as a tax return.
Betrayal befalls the loyal, when you trust something enough to place an almost religious like devotion it hurts all the more when someone who should be guardian of it starts messing around with it. As Kyle Reese once said, "it can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with and it absolutely will not stop until you are dead. " Franchises endure for the most part, either through social appreciation, cult following or retro appeal, even Hollywood will go back to re-starting a franchise that really doesn't actually need it (Spiderman) and extending others that probably should be left alone (Terminator). Invariably though franchises mean cash and lots of it, Bobby Kotick knows all about cash and as Activision's CEO,President and Pearl of Wisdom he sits at the top of the juggernaut that has been the Call of Duty franchise. In 2010 34% of Activisions revenue was generated by Call of Duty, overall the franchise makes up one third of the company's annual $4 Billion revenue. To put that into perspective Call of Duty MW3 sold 6.5 Million units in its first 24 hours on sale generating close to half a billion dollars, It took competitor Electornic Arts nearly two and a half weeks to acheive the same figure with Battlefield 3 (despite the fact I think that its single player product is more entertaining and its multiplayer far more superior.)
It's not all been plain sailing as the brand has developed of course, the messy court action by Activision against Infinity Wards Vince Zampella and Jason West which saw the Modern Warfare creators kicked out of a job under a cloud of allegations of I.P ownership rights, unpaid bonuses and 'creative differences' had the potential to rock the integrity of the brand and potentially land a $1 Billion damages bill for Activision if the jury went in Zampella and West's favor.
In the court filing which has all the ingredients of a Watergate scandal for the videogame industry, West and Zampella's legal team had stated that evidence existed that Activision's chief legal officer, George Rose, wanted to break into West's and Zampella's computers and e-mail accounts to dig up dirt on them.
That initiative, called "Project Icebreaker" in court filings, took place in 2009, one year after West and Zampella extended their contracts and only a matter of months prior to the release of Modern Warfare 2. Activision in it's wisdom decided to throw the towel in on the impending LA county superior court trial and settled out of court knowing full well it was going to be way out of its depth as soon as the incriminating emails surfaced during trial showing its own form of business 'Black Ops'. Why it took Activision so long to work out that a $36 Million lawsuit was mere pennies against $1 Billion damages suit which would effectively wipe out the profit made by Activision is anybody's guess.
From a branding stand point it could have been extremely harmful, not just for Activision as a publisher but specifically for the Call of Duty brand. Dragging ex employees through court in pursuit for damages when you've made a Billion Dollars from their work and expertise is a journalists dream story - the sheer scale of the court case and information to be made available is one too many fires for Activision to fight in national and specialist press. The last thing you need affecting your brand is bad PR and the risk of consumers defecting to competitor product out of principle because your legal staff decided to break privacy laws.
Court documents lay out Infinity Ward's agreement with Activision, which purportedly gives the developer rights to creative authority over "any Call of Duty game set in the post-Vietnam era, the near future or the distant future" and any title under the Modern Warfare brand. This is why in order to do anything else with the Call of Duty franchise beyond what has already gone before in Black Ops we see the series really jumping the shark and introducing the sci-fi element under the Call of Duty brand not the Modern Warfare brand. Although the series is not quite ray guns and spacesuits it's certainly a little too far forward for most fans liking with tech and hardware that treads on ground that EA tried to cover with the Battlefield series in Battlefield 2142. Gamerankings scored BF 2142 in the 80% mark, not a PR horror story but it also didn't set the world on fire (despite an awesome Titan capture and control multiplayer dynamic) and the fact the series had jumped so far forward basing its story around a global ice age in the 22nd century there was no real relevance to the title within the franchise, it wasn't a natural progression which has seen more proven success for the Battlefield franchise set within the current era of modern warfare.
It's fair to say that MW3 has been fully farmed as has its predecessor, countless map packs have scored Activision a few more zero's on the dollar as a multimillion money maker and the launch of the Elite service for MW3 although a risky gamble appears to have paid off making yet more cash.
However, I really don't agree that the next natural progression for the series is some kind of futuristic FPS "future soldier" theme. Personally I think this is a major mistake for the Black Ops brand but could be a clear sign that the publisher has exhausted all its ideas and wants more creative license to make stuff up.Ghost Recon already caters for the futuristic soldier element and does very well with it because its already ingrained in the franchise from the beginning. The brand does introduce some extreme futuristic elements of late(going invisible) but because it planted this seed early on in its franchise it's been able to market it very well because its evolved with the series.
Black Ops 2 on the other hand looks inferior, A.I looks absolutely awful, graphics look substandard and nothing like the detailed MW2 visuals. Fans flocked to the Modern Warfare and Black Ops franchises because the content was authentic, real life locations and stunning weapon realisation and customization. Never since have I played an FPS with the same amount of tension and excitement as the sniper mission "All Ghillied Up" in Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare. It was a party talking point, an absolute on the money concept of quality mission design because for over half the mission it went against the fast flow non stop aspect of traditional FPS play. While agree with many that more of the same Black Ops story formula set in Cuba, Vietnam or a science lab would also be a mistake jumping the series forward several decades from the cold war to an age where AT AT like Star Wars tech graces the battlefield seem like it was done to avoid legal issues and still deliver an FPS rather than evolve the brand.  Halo already provides our sci-fi FPS fix, Halo 4 will continue to provide it and rather than refresh the franchise Black Ops 2 runs the real risk of alienating a large contingent of its fans who have loved the real world 20th century conflicts and military organisations. I was blown away with the marketing for Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare, its perk system revolutionized FPS classes in games, it had fantastic realism for modern day assault weapons and Special Forces groups. The game was THE FPS game to beat, it was immersive and intense, multiplayer was balanced and engaging. Extending the brand, Activision released The Variety Map Pack which was downloaded by over one million people in its first nine days of release, a record for paid Xbox Live downloadable content, valued at $10 million.
If we put that into perspectibe there are free to play multiplayer PC products with that dollar amount as a total development budget currently in the works.
A videogame brand evolves with its audience, it looks at trends, wants and needs from its consumers and positions the product to answer those needs, I'm pretty sure that the decision to move the genre so far forward to 2025 wasn't taken lightly although I can't help thinking that the development teams and Activision's own marketing teams haven't entirely seen eye to ey on that jump forward.Black Ops 2 is looking more like Red Faction than its gritty predecessor, is that what the COD forums have been calling for?, is it the next natural evolution of Activision's FPS brand before the death of the Xbox360 and PS3 console cycle?, who knows, but for me as a massive FPS and COD fan its just a jump too far.