The Last of the Year
by Jessica Mulligan
This will be the last column of the year. The next will appear on January 8, 2002, and where the heck is the decade going, away? It seems like just yesterday that we were all storing food and ammo in preparation for The Y2K Bug. Ah, nostalgia
I Think Im Turning Japanese
If you want to understand the importance of Japan to our industry, simply check out the Keynote Speaker index for next years Game Developer Conference. Half the keynotes are by folks from Japanese companies, including two from Sony.
And lest you think this is overkill, consider: Of the $6 billion+ brought in by the industry in 2000, around $4.5 billion of that was generated by sales of games designed for Japanese-created hardware. Talk about the global economy; that indicates that, right now, most jobs in the industry depend on console sales by Sony and Nintendo.
With Microsofts Xbox showing strong Christmas season sales, this may have changed a bit by next year, but not much. Sony has an installed base of 6 million Playstation 2 users and expect to sell another million of them in the next few months, and the Nintendo Gamecube is showing surprising strong sales right now, too. Microsoft would have to sell 2 or 3 million units this year, at least, to make a significant dent.
The gang at Redmond are in this for the long haul, however, with a $500 million marketing budget and a willingness to lose close to $100 per Xbox sale. The real test will be to look at the installed bases for Xbox, PS2 and Gamecube at the end of 2003. By that time, well know what effect the Sony/AOL alliance for online PS2 gaming and Microsofts own network for Xbox online gaming will have on the industry, and online gaming is going to determine the eventual console winner here.
For Gods Sake
Those wacky politicians who dont believe in censorship are at it again. According to GameSpot, US Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl sent a letter to 34 retail chains chastening them for not doing more to prevent sales and rentals of M-rated games to minors.
Now on the face of it, this might seem reasonable; M-rated games are supposed to be for the 17 and older crowd, right? Thats what the ESRB ratings code is about, right? If a game is rated Mature, we shouldnt be selling them to kids, right?
OK, now for the rest of the story. 1994, the year the ESRB was founded, was a very touchy year for the gaming industry. If you were around then, youll remember that some Democratic politicians, needing a throw-away issue for the incredibly important mid-term elections after President Clintons two years of bungling (remember the National Health plan and national ID cards?), looked at Doom and Quake and licked their lips in anticipation. Here was a throw-away issue that was absolutely perfect. Apparently, there was a need to protect the precious bodily fluids of our poor, impressionable kids from what Senator Lieberman today calls the "culture of carnage in which we are raising our children is contributing to a general epidemic of youth violence." So the Dems, embodied by those same Senators Lieberman and Kohl, started making noises about the need for government intervention concerning violence in games.
Bear in mind that First Amendment of the US Constitution prevents the Federal government from interfering in this kind of thing. They knew if they managed to get a censorship law passed, the Supreme Court would strike it down. Also bear in mind that starting in 1991, incidents of youth violence began dropping and by 1994 were down several percent across the board (and today are down over 33% from that time, <according to the FBI>).
They also knew two other things: that it would make a great campaign issue ("We tried to protect your children, but the Supreme Court wouldnt let us gut the Constitution."), and that the people who run the entertainment industry have rubber spines and big pocketbooks. Hey, campaigning is expensive.
So they did what Congress did with the movie industry some thirty years ago: They applied pressure until the game companies folded and set up an independent ratings system. This kind of out is perfect for politicians: Instead of threatening as a campaign stunt legislation they know will never stand up in court, just make the publishers rate themselves, then use that as an excuse during election years to jump all over them anytime someone sells an M game to minor. Hey, thats not censorship, right? They should be willing to enforce their own rating system, shouldnt they? Well, yeah, we did kinda of threaten them into making the system up, but ignore the man behind the curtain. By the way, there is an election coming up and the re-election committee could use some cash
See what is going on here? If this isnt submarine censorship, I dont know what is. And how useful a device to create regular campaign funding! The equation is elegantly simple: Need $$$ X Threaten Industry = Contributions = a year or two of peace. Is it any wonder that the entertainment industry is one of the biggest contributors to election committees? In another time, this was called Danegeld; today, we call it protection money. Organized crime has nothing on Congress; La Cosa Nostra could learn a thing or two from these guys.
If we had any spine at all as a group, wed just sack the whole ESRB rating system and tell the Congressional leeches to go stuff it. If they want to fight out the 1st Amendment issues in front of the Supreme Court well, I like our chances.
Then again, games like Take 2 Interactives Grand Theft Auto III, which allows a player to be a contract killer and to have sex with a prostitute, then bash her head in and steal her money, continually remind me that the corporate culture in this industry is still at the junior high school locker room, "Hey, check out my woody!" stage. While Im not encouraging publishers to exercise self-censorship just to avoid Congressional hearings, which would be self-defeating, neither am I recommending anyone buy the game.
I mean, there is such a thing as being completely tasteless.
The last couple weeks have been a tad spotty for massive-multiplayer games. Microsoft turned The Zone into part of its .Net initiative and made all the people that use it sign-up for the MSs proprietary Passport service. Being a Microsoft product, it predictably didnt work well in the first iteration and thousands of Asherons Call subscribers were shut out from playing for various periods of time. Jerry Pournelle, sci-fi author, long-time Byte columnist, game player and general purveyor of common sense, has an excellent overview of his experiences with Passport and Asherons Call in his Current View daybook at currentview.html. Dr. Pournelle changes his daybook weekly, so if you cant find it there, look under view183.html, which should be the URL under which this weeks thoughts will be archived. The entries for Wednesday, December 12 through Sunday, December 16 contain his recent experiences with both Asherons Call and Everquest. They are a must-read. Heck, for that matter, Dr. Pournelles site is one of the few I read on a daily basis, and not just for games info.
The week before, on December 4, Verant released the highly anticipated Shadows of Luclin expansion for EverQuest. Sony claims 120,000 units sold the first week, setting up an interesting sales record contest between EQ and Mythic Entertainments Dark Age of Camelot. Until this past week, DAoC was the fastest-selling massive-multiplayer game in our industrys history; the Luclin expansion may have eclipsed that record slightly. Of course, Verant has a built-in sales base of some 400,000 subscribers for its expansions and Camelot had to attract new subscribers, so this may be comparing apples and oranges. The overall good news for the industry is that the strong sales of the two games show there is still plenty of consumer interest in persistent worlds. This was not necessarily a given, considering the poor launches of both Anarchy Online and World War II Online over the summer (Disclaimer: My company, The Themis Group, is currently under contract to Funcom, publishers of AO).
Luclin certainly didnt have as smooth a launch as Camelot experienced a few weeks back. Once the servers were brought down, they stayed down for over 24 hours, long past the scheduled patch time. Once the servers were back up, Luclin turned out to have more than its share of bugs, requiring almost daily patches. Other issues included the need to upgrade to at least Windows 98 to run Luclin, which means anyone still running windows 95 is out luck, and high memory requirements, 256 meg of RAM required and 512 meg recommended. This is pretty extreme even for hard core gamers, who are known to buy whatever hardware is needed to play a game.
I mention this not to put the hurt on Verant, but to take the opportunity hearken back to an earlier column, (Mass Hysteria). An issue not discussed fully in that column was the technology used by the consumer. Not only are PCs still touchy and complicated for the average person but, as an industry, were still pushing the envelope on PC capabilities. And you know what happens when you push the envelope; things go boom.
So, what happens next year when we start to see the first of the truly mass market persistent worlds, such as The Sims Online from Electronic Arts? As noted in Mass Hysteria, non-hard core players are far less tolerant of these kind of things. They dont care if youre pushing the envelope; they just want the game to work 24/7, like the telephone and TV. And when things dont work, they want it fixed, right now. What happens when the client starts crashing or acting funky in a mass market persistent world, an inevitability with todays PCs?
I predict a very interesting Fall, 2002 for the industry.
And What About the New Year?
The next column will be the first of 2002, so it seems appropriate to use it look ahead and make some assumptions and predictions about what might happen. At the very least, it should be an interesting exercise to note which games are scheduled to come out and what the possible outcomes of those launches are. Most columnists dont like to make hard, fast predictions and prefer to leave a little of what Robert Heinlein called "wriggle room," because few predictions become wholly true and no one wants to be thought of as the writer who can almost call them. Thats like being known as the batter who can almost get it the wall; it may be exciting for a few seconds, but it rarely gets you into the starting line-up.
But I go where angels fear to tread, do I. I spit in the devils eye and laugh in the face of danger, ha-ha! Boldly do I make predictions and dare the industry to prove me wrong. In other words, Ill leave plenty of wriggle room. Hey, Im human.
If you have any issues you want covered, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.