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Console market studies

Gamespot has reported on a recent study of console gamer behavior by Zelos Group. It contains some interesting tidbits:

  • PlayStation One and GBA are viable platforms. Which reminds me of a well-known console developer asking me why I was still working on a PS1 title. This was in September 1997.
  • Word of mouth rules. This sorta kinda seems to confirm industry lore that hard-core gamers buy games they like, this then creates buzz, the game then appears on the non-hardcore gamers' radar, and then the game maybe becomes a huge hit.
  • DVD playback is an important feature for a console. People might buy a console that's also a PVR.
  • Console gamers like to play alone.

Just yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a friend who knows about these things about how you can make studies say anything you like and a lot of them use sloppy methodology... oh well.

U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray has published a report on the toy and video game industry. Of interest:

Extensive debate exists as to which stage of the video game cycle the market is currently experiencing. "We believe spring 2003 marked the midpoint of the current video game cycle, in terms of the product life cycle of current generation video game hardware," said Gikas. "We anticipate the next generation of video game hardware will be introduced in autumn 2006, depending upon the competitive positioning of the video game console manufacturers and existing demand for current generation products." "In addition, we expect 2003 will be the peak year for unit sales of current generation hardware sales. We are forecasting that 22.3 million hardware units will be sold in North America in 2003, a modest increase from 21.1 million units in 2002 and will subsequently decline in 2004 to sales of 20.3 million units as the installed base of video game hardware becomes saturated."

(Both links from Slashdot Games.)

Strange Japanese games, part 3

On a less bizarre note, Ben Carter mentioned a fascinating Japanese game on a mailing list some time ago, and graciously allowed me to quote his description verbatim:

I thought I'd mention an interesting game I haven't heard much about but picked up when I was in Japan recently.

Called "Operator's Side", it's a "voice action adventure" for the PS2, the idea being that (almost) all your interaction with the game is through a voice headset. The game itself is a survival horror-type adventure, set on a space station, where you play the "operator", who is trapped in the control room and must talk a woman called "Rio" through the process of escaping. I believe, incidentally, that some of the team who worked on ICO were involved in it.

It works surprisingly well - the voice recognition can cope with my (poor) accent, and accepts remarkably complex sentences. It's context-sensitive, but there seems to be a pretty big vocabulary of accepted words and phrases. There's even quite a bit of intelligence with regards to referring to objects and places - you can, for example, say "migi no koto wa nan desu ka?" ("what is that thing on your right?"), and the character will tell you (also, conveniently highlighting it so you can see the name).

They've used the voice system in some quite clever ways, too - in combat you give orders in realtime (eg - "dodge left, shoot it in the right eye and reload!"), and you can also hold simple conversations with the characters to find out information.

There are definitely flaws in the system - it has a tendency to misrecognise words it doesn't know as ones it does, and sometimes it degenerates into text-adventure "guess the noun/verb" exercises (occasionally deliberately - one puzzle sees the central character unable to remember the name of a weapon, which leads to you sat there reeling off the names of everything you can think of to try and find it!). It's also quite simplistic gameplay - Resident Evil-style "find key to open door" puzzles form the majority of the game (as far as I've seen), and the combat is only difficult because of the control system.

Nonetheless, it's a fascinating and genuinely novel game in many ways - and great Japanese language practice, since it hasn't been translated (and, I'd guess, probably never will be, sadly)...

Strange Japanese games, part 2

Now that I've started writing about strange Japanese games - and since I have a reputation of eclecticism to uphold, about which more later - I am forced to confront the difficult task of talking about one of the strangest games I've ever come across, without using words or phrases that will make me regret looking in my referrer logs for months to come. That game is Chou Aniki.

I won't try to describe it, not only because it defies description and because I haven't played it, but also because other people's descriptions are so funny. writes about the PlayStation 2 version, which is called Chou Aniki Seinaru Protein Densetsu. They don't really go into what the Protein in the title refers to, but they do ponder the question:

Are there that many gamers in Japan who get off on playing innuendo-drenched 2D shooters staring ugly nearly-naked steroid mutants?
This fan page goes into more detail on the mechanics:
But if you still have trouble taking down the enemies, don't fret! Samson and Adonis aren't just bodybuilders -- they're trained in Nude Ballet! Tap the other button, and your adept alter-ego performs a pirouette. While twirling, any bullets or oncoming enemies will simply slide off your oily, naked body.

Seanbaby has mentioned it in his hilarious Naughtiest Games of All Time article (hilarious if you don't take his homophobic remarks seriously). An excerpt:

You start the game as a nine-story flying man in a speedo firing lasers out of your viking hat, and yes you read the beginning of this sentence correctly.

The official website does not feature any funny descriptions, but that doesn't mean it's not pretty strange.

Some day I'm going to play that game.

Strange Japanese games, part 1

Gamespy has a column about Japanese games. This week it's about game genres that are unsuccessful outside of Japan. It mentions dating sims, management sims (which is odd as they are are pretty popular in Europe), vehicle sims (again odd, as it is a lucrative niche market in the West - although I admit that the Tokyo bus game I saw in an arcade in Tokyo shows a deeper level of interest), pet raising sims and voyeurism games.

(From Slashdot Games.)

Japanese developers speak out

Gamespot has some reports on TIGRAF, the Tokyo International Computer Graphics Festival, held in Tokyo last week.

Here you can read what some top Japanese developers have to say about computer graphics and game development. As the Japanese development scene remains pretty opaque for Western developers, this makes for interesting reading. They talk about how higher budgets influence the game development process, and reduce the willingness to take risks. Not a new topic in the industry.

The other developers seemed to agree that budgets are becoming a real hurdle. Former United Game Artists president Mizuguchi followed up on Sugiura's comments, saying that larger companies also have issues when giving the green light on projects because even though expenditures might be high, the companies just don't know if a game will succeed until it is released.

Mizuguchi contrasted the current game development scene to what regularly takes place in the U.S.-based movie industry, which can green light films with huge development budgets due to numerous ways of testing the movie prior to release (and prior to commencing production). However, the gaming industry, he said, is still lacking these methods as the game industry doesn’t have scripts or storyboards to consult.

There was also some discussion on borrowing management methods and structures from Hollywood:
Minami's focus on the bottom line set him apart from the other speakers. He pointed out that game development in Japan is not always organized, and does not always follow a logical path. Development time and budgets tend to swell beyond original projections, and this can threaten a company's future, as a company that sinks all its funds into projects that run behind schedule will have difficulty funding its next round of development. Minami suggested that the project management techniques used in Hollywood studios might have a place in the game industry as well.

Space Channel 5 and Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi had his own presentation, where he talked about his evolution as a game developer, going from Sega Rally Championship to Space Channel 5 and Rez.

Mizuguchi's first project was Space Channel 5, which he says didn't turn out the way he wanted--at first. Showing a clip of the game's prototype, Mizuguchi commented that the main character Ulala's fighting style was too cool and stylish. What he wanted was a game that was fun to watch, and played a bit like a musical. The developers on his team responded that the game just wasn't going in that direction. In order to have his developers understand what kind of game he wanted Space Channel 5 to be, Mizuguchi created a six-month comedy workshop at the Sega offices and had everyone on his team attend it. The workshop consisted of a number of clasees and excercises. In one session, he had the team hop around the floor in a group while looking and pointing a finger in different directions. In another, he had the team pretending to break through a glass wall and then say something funny. One of the main objectives, according to Mizuguchi, was for his staff to acquire some understanding of the psychology behind making people laugh. He said he believes there are systematic ways to get people to feel different kinds of emotions.

(From Slashdot Games.)

Death to the interactive bourgeoisie!

Gamespot has posted a discussion with an anonymous developer from the UK, commenting on the string of British studios that have closed recently (i.e. Mucky Foot, Lost Toys, Computer Artworks, Silicon Dreams, Attention to Detail and HotGen).

I thought this was interesting:

Why is this happening in the UK? You don't hear about this many casualties in the US or mainland Europe.
I don't like to hear about developers going out of business in any country, but the reason you don't hear about casualties in mainland Europe is that there are so few mainland European developers left to go out of business. 2001 and 2002 were lethal years in France and Germany. Cryo, Kalisto, Delphine, Polygon Studios, TriNode, Funatics, Phenomedia, Vulpine, Westka - this is just a partial list I'm typing in from memory. Some of these people have already started new companies, but many people are still struggling to find work or have left the industry altogether. So the real question is: how bad is the situation in the UK, compared to the size of the industry? And why did these studios go bust now, instead of one or two years ago?
We're in the midpoint of the console cycle, for god's sake. This is supposed to be the "prosperous" phase.

Hmmm.... last time I heard, 2002 was the best year ever for the industry, and we'd have to wait until 2007 before things would get this good again. But that's because hardware sales are decreasing. I dunno, maybe this is supposed to be the prosperous phase.

Anyway, the developer proposes that the industry should try to cultivate stars, like John Carmack or Shigeru Miyamoto, in order to increase market appeal, and make it more difficult for publishers to take their business to, say, Eastern Europe. It's a good way to add value and differentiate yourself from competitors, but it is not an approach without risks.