Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Bye, bye Game

Yesterday the beleaguered Game Group gave up the ghost and finally entered administration after being unable to find a suitable partner to rescue the business from collapse. PwC, the administrators put in charge, announced that they would be closing 277 Game and Gamestation stores across the UK and Ireland, making 2104 staff redundant by the end of the week. This will leave 333 stores open which will according to PwC make the group a more attractive proposition to buyers.

It was a sad day for me as I read the announcement and the list of stores to be closed that was compiled on Gameindustry.biz , especially as the two closest stores to me in North Finchley and Brent Cross were ones earmarked for closure. No longer will I be able to enliven my trips to either destination by popping into Game to see if anything takes my fancy.  

It’s never a good day when that many people lose their jobs and it is especially tough with the current economic situation. Those 2104 employees will probably end up joining the 2.67m other unemployed people looking for work. However while a degree of sympathy is required for those who work in the trenches at Game, the same emotion should not be directed at the senior management who have quite clearly messed up, badly.

Administrators at PwC have blamed The Game Group's collapse on its "ambitious" overseas expansion and the "unfortunate" close proximity of its stores and it is the latter point that I think speaks volumes about the kind of people who were in charge of The Game Group. It is easy to see that Game had too many stores on our high streets. Ask any gamer at random and they will tell you how there are either two Game stores or one Game and a Gamestation store on their local high-street, often in close proximity.
I myself used to work for Game and was staggered when I heard that they were to open a concession store in a Debenhams just down the road from the store I worked in. Then when Game took over Gamestation you suddenly had a situation where the Game Group had three stores on one high-street. Anyone could see that this situation was hardly the best way to run a business–as all these stores would do was cannibalise each other’s sales; and you still have to pay rent and wages for each individual store. The Game Group already had too many stores in similar areas before they bought Gamestation and that purchase made things even worse. That the senior management never thought about cutting the number of stores it had is just plan madness. Throughout the last few months as the trials and tribulations of Game have been reported, comments under news stories and on message boards have often stated the same incredulity. If the public could see where the problem lies, why couldn’t high-powered business men?

The demise of The Game Group should go down as one of the biggest cock-ups in retail history. That you can take a group that is providing goods in what is predominantly a growing economic sector, and run it into the ground is just beyond belief. Many commentator’s believe that it was the rise of digital distribution and the increase in online sales that did for Game in the end, but retail still makes up 50% of all video game sales and the fact that Game couldn’t make a good fist of what is a buoyant sector is damming evidence showing that management just lost the plot.

I hope someone is able to come and save the remaining 333 stores and their staff. The high-street needs a video-game presence on it. Not purely for the reasons outlined in my previous blog, but because it serves as a reminder to the public at large that games matter. As it currently stands it’s a sad day for retail, a sad day for gamers, but an even worse day for the 2,104 people who have lost their jobs because of the terrible mismanagement of the company.  

Friday, 23 March 2012

It's the economy, stupid.

It's a my budget!

Between 2008 and 2011 it was estimated that the percentage of people working in the video game industry within the UK had fallen by 10% according to TIGA. This fall in the amount of people working for the industry resulted in £100m less tax and a loss of a quarter of a billion in contribution to the UKs GDP. This is a shocking state of affairs especially when global growth for the industry sits at around 23% despite the current economic turmoil.

There was hope in 2010 that the sector would finally receive the tax breaks that were long overdue, tax breaks that the film industry was already receiving, breaks that when implemented in France had seen a 20% increase in staff. However when the Coalition came to power in his 2011, Budget Chancellor George Osborne announced that they would not be carrying out Labour’s promise to introduce tax relief for the video games sector. 

All was not lost however as finally this week in his 2012 Budget Osborne recognised the value of the industry to the economy and announced that following consultation video games would finally receive tax breaks similar to those currently benefiting the UK film industry. Obviously there was great relief within the industry with UK Interactive Entertainment claiming that it would lead to 4,700 new jobs and £188m investment by studios while the Department for Culture Media and Sport reckoned 1,650 studio jobs would be created and £280m added to the GDP. We already make some great games here with studios like Liohead(Fable), Codemasters(DiRT), Rockstar North(GTA), and Rocksteady (Batman:Arkham Asylum). This break, which could be as much as 20%, will allow those studios and others to make even better games. 

However before we get too excited there are a few things to be concerned about. The UK has seen a massive ‘brain drain’ in this area over the last few years with major studios such as Bizarre Creations, EA Bright Light and Black Rock all closing. In the case of Bizarre Creations 35%, mostly senior people within the studio, left for jobs in other countries and in total it is believed of the 10% of jobs lost in the industry since 2008 41% have moved abroad. This drain will not be easy to reverse and while tax breaks are great it will still be a while until they come online. There will need to be a period of consultation to figure out how this is going to work and EU approval garnered, which in itself can take up to a year, to make sure it’s not seen as state aid. 

But apart from the relief itself it is more the statement the government has made by introducing a tax break that is important. Gaming is still not as mainstream as people within the industry like to think and many investors don’t see it as a serious place to put their money. With this move the UK government is saying that they consider video gaming to be as important as TV and film and this will encourage people to invest. This is the point that I think people should take away from the announcement. By recognising the industry as being important the government is, for the first time, saying to the public ‘we take the video game industry and its output seriously’ and that will go a long way to helping grow what is a brilliant sector.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Mass Effect, the end.

I managed to complete my journey through the Mass Effect trilogy last week and originally I was going to write a bit about my thoughts on that ending, but since the Internet has been inundated with people arguing for and against how Bioware chose to finish up their tale I thought I would do something a bit different. (For the record I was disappointed with the ending and I think this article and this video sum up my problems with it.)

No matter how you feel about the ending though we should be praising Bioware for what they have achieved with the Mass Effect trilogy. Over the course of three games they have managed to bring to life a world and a cast of characters that players have grown to love. For the first time a series has allowed you to shape and mould the protagonist over not one, not two, but three games. The Sheppard and story that you had to tell at the end of Mass Effect 3 was one that was shaped by your actions, not one that had been predefined before you even started. This is pretty much unheard of in the realm of video-games and I think this fact has been lost beneath the vitriol coming from both sides of the divide. 
The amount of fervour on both sides of this divide about the ending, clearly demonstrates that people have become invested in the characters and world that Bioware has created. That people care so much about the way the story has finished shows what a great job Bioware has done with the series. People have become emotionally invested.

For me the Mass Effect series feels like the maturation of what Bioware started to do with the Baldur’s Gate series. In those games you had a few decisions to make that changed how things played out, but with Mass Effect they have taken that genesis further.

Despite the success however, I do feel like this may be a once in a lifetime series. With budgets increasing and EA already meddling with the design, I don’t know whether Bioware will get the chance to do anything like this again. The cost involved in designing a number of different stories must be quite large, added to that–people’s expectations will only grow leading to cries for more choices and even more divergent outcomes. It’s hard to see a publisher, especially one as conservative as EA, green-lighting such a project again.

So whatever your thoughts on how the series has wound-up, I urge you to recognise the feat that Bioware have managed to achieve with the Mass Effect series, especially as we may never see its like again. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Mass Effect 3 you decide, maybe.

Tomorrow sees the launch of what is arguably the first major release of 2012, Mass Effect 3. It is the final game in the long running trilogy from RPG luminaries Bioware, and brings an end to an epic tale that has allowed players to directly influence the story in subsequent games, based on the decisions made in the previous one. With the release of Mass Effect 3 you can guide your own unique character through to his/her dénouement.

For most gamers who have followed Commander Sheppard, the protagonist, through the previous games, this is a thrilling climax to a story that they have become heavily invested in. However, with various sites and publications, along with our friends across the Atlantic, having had a three day head-start on defeating the Reaper threat, news is beginning to emerge that people might not be altogether too happy with how the story turns out. 

You see, it seems that in order to get what has been classed as the ‘perfect ending’ the player is required to jump through a number of hoops, hoops which in the first two games have not been necessary. The hoops in question are as follows:

Hoop 1- Multiplayer
The player must engage in co-op multiplayer where the objective is to survive wave based assaults and complete objectives. By doing this they increase their ‘Readiness’ meter which acts as a multiplier for their War Asset number. Basically by engaging in multiplayer you can raise your War Assets which make the final battle easier with fewer casualties.

Hoop 2- Scanning
The old scanning chestnut from the second game rears its ugly head, albeit in a slightly less ghastly manner. In this case the player has to scour systems for planets that aren’t marked on the map and then fire a probe at them. This added to completing all the quests in the game will push your War Assets to the required mark without having to engage in multiplayer.

So it is a case of either/or if you want to get what Bioware terms the ‘good ending’. Fail to do so and I suppose you end up with a much worse ending, although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all this game sees the whole galaxy at war, there is going to be death and suffering and you should expect to lose friends. The problem is that this stance taken on the ending by the developers is in direct contrast to that of the previous games in the series. In both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 the ending you got was largely dependent on the choices you made during play, not making sure you did every quest in the game or playing multiplayer in order to fill some arbitrary meter. It certainly feels like after sticking to their guns throughout the series and allowing the player’s choices to decide the story for them, at the last minute Bioware have decided to abandon that to a certain degree and introduced a totally different mechanic.

Without completing the game it is impossible for me to make any forgone conclusion about whether this decision has spoilt Mass Effect 3. However I will go into the game knowing that in order to get the ending I want, I’m a sucker for wanting to keep as many characters alive as possible; I will have to jump through one of the two hoops Bioware have placed before me and personally I have little to no interest in playing multiplayer Mass Effect and do not want to go near anything that is even vaguely like the planet scanning from Mass Effect 2. So I may end up with the less-than-perfect-ending, which if that is the case, I will not have got the ending I would have wanted, and for a game that has prided itself on letting the player influence the outcome that is a pretty terrible thought.

As I said, right now I don’t know how I will feel once I complete the game and I will certainly enjoy finding out how the story ends, but I look forward to re-visiting this topic once I have completed Mass Effect 3 and seeing whether Bioware really have fundamentally changed the way the player’s choices impacts on the story’s end. I live in hope that my decisions still have a major impact on which path the story takes.   

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 an American Tale.

I am a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed games, but after seeing the announcement trailer and reading the accompanying press release for Assassin’s Creed 3 I find myself slightly perturbed.

The first thing that I have issue with, is what seems like a move away from the huge cityscape-type play area towards a more open-world style of game with talk of wide landscapes mixed with towns. For me a major part of the Assassin’s Creed games is the city traversal and although I don’t mind if after four games Ubisoft decides it is time to change things up, I am a little disconcerted that they seem to be moving towards an open-world style game ala GTA and others. These games are great, but I don’t really want to see Assassin’s Creed go down this path as the Creed games have always been sufficiently different, giving me something other games of this nature have not. With this third game I think that Ubisoft might be getting away from what makes Assassin's Creed stand out from the crowd.

The more pressing concern though is the setting. In the past games, you have often been fighting in an historical period during a time where there are no clearly defined historical ‘bad guys.’ What I mean by this is that even though you were fighting against the Templars, in the first game you were involved in the Crusades, but neither side was portrayed as the ‘good’ side with Templars on both the Christian and Muslim sides. In subsequent games the focus was more the time period rather than any specific conflict.

With the choice of the American Revolution I can't help but feel that Ubisoft may end up picking a specific side and portraying them as evil. This fear has been backed up by the trailer they released that was very pro-American and had Washington railing against the ‘evil’ British. Now this may not be representative of the whole game, but it has me worried. With American values dominating the Western development scene I find it hard to see a situation where a game is released that in any way depicts the American Revolutionaries in a bad light. I’m not about to go into the rights and wrongs of the American War of Independence, but it cannot be boiled down to something as simple as the Colonists were the good guys and the British were the bad. 
Entertainment media has a bad track record when it comes to properly depicting history and when it is something as close to American sensibilities as this you very rarely get an unbiased approach. Case in point: The Patriot. The major reason why I didn’t watch that film was because it was terrible reductive history and I don’t want to see that kind of jingoistic nonsense in a video game, especially in one of my favourite video game series. If you are going to tackle a period of history I think it is imperative that you tell the truth and stick to the facts especially when the only history some people get today is from entertainment media. Tell a lie in a film or game and that lie soon becomes accepted fact.

My fears may end up being totally unfounded and Ubisoft may be able to strike a delicate balance with neither side being portrayed as good or bad, but right now I fear that I may be giving Assassin's Creed 3 a miss.