Malik  (12/31/04)

The end of the year is upon us.  Today, the final day of 2004, seems like a perfect time to touch off about some of the biggest complaints I've had in the past year.  Those being the state of what quality means to the gaming industry (with one company in particular) and the fact that the gaming industry seems to be completely unaware of what changes should be in sequels (and what changes are merely "changes for the sake of change").  So, with these two issues being the highest complaints I've had in the last year, I figure it's a good time to remember where this year had brought us.  As always, I'm Malik and these are my Bitchings.

How Can Consumer Satisfaction and Quality Not Coexist (or: A Brief History of Sony's Gaming Life)

Sony has been in the forefront of consumer electrons for longer than most of us geeks can remember.  They helped to pioneer the introduction of the CD, the DVD, the mini-disk, and they even helped to revolutionize the video game industry at a time when Nintendo and Sega had both ran stagnant.  Yes, I mean the Playstation.  The one system that helped to bring the game world from being an underground and kid-friendly hobby to being a mainstream phenomenon.  So, with so much customer satisfaction, having a name that is a household word, with having the single most popular console of this (and last) generation, and with a brave jump into the realm of handhelds, how could Sony go wrong?

It's simple.  They have been going wrong for far longer than any of us can remember.  Just keeping this in the geek realm of gaming, let's start at the beginning (usually the best place to start) with the PS (I'd say PSX, but that phrase may make a different appearance...).  I know I was not alone in planning, after having this system for a year, on where to get the money to annually buy a new PS.  For those who complain about the short time it takes between the default warranty of the PS2 voiding and the PS2 voiding it's existence, you know nothing of the pain of the PS.  I literally went through 4 Playstations during the four years I was living in that generation of consoles.

It all started one day when I noticed a FMV sequence on FFVII running a bit slowly and looking like streaming video over a 36k modem.  That was only the beginning of the downfall.  Within a week, my PS was toast.  I could have repaired it, via Sony's customer service, but considering it would cost only $10 more to buy a refurbished system (and that wouldn't take a week or more of shipping), I went with that solution.  After all, I needed my PS, and I needed it quick.  So, I bought a new one. 

Then, about a year later, I started to see the FMVs on Saga Frontiers go to crap in the same way.  On one hand, this could be seen as a blessing since SF was such a bad pile of shit.  However, it also meant my PS was going, once again, to crap.  So, I bought another system (a new one this time).  Then about 9 months later, the same shit happened on Xenogears.  So, I bought another.  For a while I figured I just had bad luck, but then I started to become a die-hard message board surfer and found how many threads existed on the low quality of the PS.  Sony also eventually fired out the PSOne.  Basically it was the same system, but with a prettier shell, and all the same problems.

So, I eventually put the PS behind me with the PS2.  A new generation, a new set of technology, and a new standard.  Plus, hopefully, a new start for Sony in terms of quality.  My hope was soon dashed when there were no good games at launch.  However, the system was really cool as a DVD player, at least.  Until I got Princess Mononoke about 3 months later for Christmas.  Some of the chapters wouldn't play.  So, I tried some more movies, and came across numerous other titles that would only play for about 80% of the actual film.  So, I learned quickly that Sony, who can make a fully capable DVD player, cannot make an built-in DVD player for their own console.  Then I started to see the FAQs on what DVDs would, and what DVDs wouldn't, play on the PS2...a list of this sort shouldn't be so damned long.

So, I bought a separate DVD player, and gave up on my hope that Sony's PS2 could solve several issues at least it was backwards compatible to play PS long as it wasn't a game on another list (of about 50 games).  So, while I waited for a new bunch of PS2 games to be released (the launch titles sucked...except SSX) I played my newly acquired Grandia (for the PS) on the PS since the PS2 can't play it.  I also played Xenogears on the PS2...until a certain scene, in which it will usually freeze on the PS2, but will run on the PS.

Then I finally got some new PS2 titles, and started to enjoy the new system...for about a month.  By now, my PS2 was over a year old, and I had only played real PS2 titles for a month when I started to find the initial loading of the system was slowing down.  Before long, I would not find any game automatically loading and would have to manually load the games from the browser menu.  At least the games worked...for another 6 months.  Then the PS2 would get DREs if I had the system 100% horizontal (if I just placed two DVD cases under the system, then it would work).  I also started to read the FAQs that people had made on how to tackle the DREs.  They were so common that FAQs were being made in force for how to solve the problem yourself and avoid paying Sony about $100.  In fact, it was being estimated that over a quarter of all PS2s were suffering DREs.

At the same time, as the PS2s were suffering DREs, Sony decided to release the brand new PSX (that's why I avoided the original Playstation abbreviation earlier).  This was supposed to be the be-all-end-all home entertainment device for PS2 fans.  It was not just a PS2, but it was a PS2 with a DVD-R drive for recording TV (so it was like a DVD TiVo), it looked pretty in a yuppie entertainment center, and it would have amazing new media abilities...which were never delivered.  So, in the end, it was a TiVo and a PS2 that ran for an astounding price that was more than those two components put together, and you still needed blank DVDs to use the TiVo function.  If you don't recognize the name "PSX", don't worry.  It was supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, but it failed so miserably in Japan that only empty promises of upgrades came, rather than a mass release.

So, while the PSX suffered a fate worse than 32X (as in: Sega 32X) and the PS2s were dying, some lawsuits were brought forward.  The most important one being a not too loudly spoken class-action lawsuit about the low quality of the PS2 and the high frequency of the DRE.  A judge found in favor of the class, and announced that Sony would have to repair all PS2 DRE problems for free.  However, those of us who are fans of importing are, naturally, exempt since we would void this service via a MOD chip installation.  So, with time, Sony kept this news on the down low, and according to some message board posts, would still charge people for repairing their DRE issues if the settlement was not brought up while dealing with Sony customer support.

With time, Sony started to look forward again.  This came in two unique steps...unique would mean that both concepts have been done before and would lead to obvious screwing of the consumer by Sony.  The first of which was the announcement of the PSP around E3.  This would be the most revolutionary handheld gaming system with the use of massive storage media (UMDs) and PS quality visuals.  The other change was another system redesign.  This time the PS2 would be made prettier, with a smaller (75% smaller) case but rumors would soon surface of the "over-heating problem".  It's been too soon to find out the reality of what this problem can do, but the basic idea is that these prettier PS2s get hot as hell in a hurry.

Then, soon after the slim PS2 hit the market, Japan saw the release of another flawed system; the PSP.  This handheld looked like the perfect competition for the DS and the GBA when Sony first announced it.  However, that hope soon turned into a flawed idea that looks like it's more doomed than one would've ever thought possible in such a bad market area.

The doomed aspects were first heard of when Sony announced the add-on battery packs.  These seemed a bit unusual in their own right, but when Sony announced that these $45 packs would only give enough play time for a single UMD movie, it looked like the unusual was actually the crappy.  Then, it was announced why such great game concepts as a portable Metal Gear (Acid) would be not true to the original game play style.  The reason was simple; to access the disk, the battery would be drained, so action games with high end sound tracks and constant disk access (found in video cut-scenes) would only further drain the limited power supply.  Thus, the portable PSP becomes as portable as an Atari Lynx or a Virtual Boy.  In other words, it's portable as long as you constantly can access a power outlet.

Throw in the bonus features of the flying UMD of doom and destruction, the fact that only Sony has access to a UMD burning facility (meaning all games have to pass through Sony...which raises game prices..., and the fact that UMD disks are completely unique (so, if you want a movie disk for your PSP, it will probably never play on a home entertainment system and will only go to waste once your PSP is collecting dust on a shelf), and you can see the future of the PSP is bleak.  Even the  supposed experts, the game industry analysts, are calling the PSP prospects bleak.  Then, if you assume the PSP has the same level of quality as the earlier Sony game systems, then you can see more doom in the form of DREs in the future.


The solution in this case is simple in theory and quite tedious in execution.  Since Sony has a good record of making quality entertainment electronics, it seems out of the question that the game consoles they develop could be so shortly lived...not the generation life span, but the life of each actual console.  So, the solution is the simple matter of Sony needing to have their home electronics people talk with their SCEA (the game group) division about quality.  This is a simple issue, but in terms of a massive entertainment and electronics giant, it could be quite costly for Sony.

However, the other possible solutions, which are out of Sony's direct control, are far more costly in the long run.  The first of these includes the consumers getting tired of this poor quality and just abandoning Sony's Playstation line for a more stable piece of hardware, like something Nintendo made.  It's not that I'm trying to give total biased love for Nintendo, but they do know how to make a sturdy console.  Or even Microsoft could receive some more consumer love with their more stable XBox line-up.  Especially if Sony is going to take the time to try something new like a handheld, maybe the solution is for the consumer to, now of all times, tell Sony how we actually feel.  However, this solution is unlikely since Sony has the best game library in the industry.

The final solution is for things to continue as they have been going.  This is actually the most likely case, and it involves just that; cases.  As in legal cases or lawsuits.  If Sony keeps making flawed hardware, the number of class-action lawsuits will only continue to grow.  Hopefully Sony could pull out of this current strategy of making poorly built consoles before the consumer must wait for a class-action lawsuit to feel protected.  This type of behavior is not fair to the consumers and it only clogs the US legal system with needed, but still unnecessary, lawsuits.

I'm still left with the same question I've had since my first Playstation died (as my much older Sony stereo still played perfectly); Why can Sony make such high quality electronics and not apply any of that know-how into making a good functional game system?

Innovation Just Keeps Hitting

This year we saw a good number of popular franchise games receive major sequels.  In fact, some of these sequels are what made these singular games into marketable franchises.  We saw this with Metroid Prime becoming it's own franchise separate from Metroid, Half-Life became a true franchise with HL2, Halo did the same, and KOTOR was the final game of the year to make a marketable franchise from a singular hit title.

With most of these games, some major upgrades were seen over the previous games.  In HL2 the entire engine, weapon system, and plot were brought out of the 1990's and into some time that still seems like it must be in the future.  With Doom 3, we saw a real 3D engine for the first time as Mars and Hell returned to our PCs.  Plus, despite how subtle the changes were, KOTOR2 even brought about new concepts to console RPGs with a new use of classic D20 skills being used in item construction and the ability to use influence to not just interact with your party, but to manipulate and alter your NPCs.

At the same time, we saw games like MP2 and H2 that boasted wonderful new mechanics and concepts, but ultimately delivered nothing of these promises.  In MP2, we were promised a brand new world with wonderful new weapons and abilities.  However, while we had some beautiful new worlds, they felt just like the lands of MP.  The weapons were nothing more than ammo burning versions of the same weapons from MP (dark=ice, light=plasma, blah, blah), and the new abilities were actually singular in the form of screw attack (which isn't even really new, now is it?).  Then there was Halo 2, with it's...ummm...bigger weapons in split-screen multiplayer that blocked the view of everything important.  Oh, and there was that amazing demo level that we all saw for over a year before the release that made everyone want to play the game all so badly...that was cut before the game was release, and without any explanation.  Ummm...yeah.  However, at least these games still held true to the principals that made the first games they came from.

On the other hand, there are some games we learned of this year that seem to have forgotten that they are actually sequels and not new franchises in their own rights.  Yep, I'm talking about the games that make us say, "WHAT?!".  Like the next Wild Arms game (slated for release in Japan within the next few months) that is based off of more action while out of combat, and a hell of a lot less action in combat.  That means it's a strategy or tactical RPG engine for combats.  On a game being called a true sequel to classical style RPG series, tactical doesn't make any sense and will only turn off the players who have come to know and love this series so well.  The series always continues, in one way or another, the basic principals of the plot from WA1.  The world is the same, and only the passage of time, with plenty of back story, makes it feel fresh and new, yet familiar, with each new outing.    However, with the corruption of the basic combat engine, the next Wild Arms game will only serve to isolate itself from the fans that have followed the series for so long. 

So, why would this type of crap happen?  Because innovation is now, and always will be, a major buzz word in the gaming world.  In other words, to help sell the game to a new set of fans, while trying to hold the old fans in their place (and hoping they don't listen to how the game is being corrupted).  This type of marketing is what turned some games into the giants they are today (like you can see in the step from GTA2 to GTA3).  However, it's also led to as many failures, like it did when Driver started to veer away from a driving game and tried to change into a really bad GTA clone...especially in the severely flawed Driv3r.

On top of this innovation for the sake of being innovative, we can also see some developers and legends not pay enough attention to anything beyond their potential income as Metal Gear Acid was announced around the time the PSP was announced.  However, the story on this game is a little deeper than just making changes for the purpose of making changes.  In fact, this game actually suffers from my previous Bitching (about Sony...look above).  Due to the battery issues of the PSP and how massive battery drain comes about from constant disk access, Mr. Kojima ("Mr. Metal Gear") of Konami decided to make MGA into a card game.  Yup...a spy game about stealthy take downs, subtle and quick decisions, and constant danger is being made into a card game.  All in the name of keeping UMD drive access times to a minimum.


So, in the end, we saw quite clearly how a lack of innovations, or at least a lack of in-your-face innovations, can still make a great sequel.  I mean MP2 did quite well without any innovation or changes (beyond renaming the weapons, adding ammo, and bringing back the screw attack).  Then you can see how a lack of changes, but also a removal of quality can be destructive, as seen in the butchering of split-screen on Halo 2.  However, despite all of this, in the end it comes down to bringing a game that we all remember fondly into a slightly new era to make a good sequel.

However, when a game is as much about the plot (in most cases) as it is about the game engine, the solution is to never corrupt either of these.  So, when a game like Wild Arms 4 is announced to not only radically change the adventure (non-combat portion of the game) engine, but to radically alter the combat engine too, the plot being similar (or not) is no longer important.  The game has been corrupted and the feel that the fans of the previous 3 (4 if you count the remake of WA1) games will not immediately be drawn to.  The only excuse for this is to let this game to be an excuse for some under talented project leads to stretch their limbs and take an attempt at the unproven...that a radical departure from a prior game engine will draw in new fans while keeping the old.  It rarely works and usually leads to the downfall of an entire franchise.

As for Metal Gear the card game...well, Kojima should have just decided to skip on making a Metal Gear game for the PSP.  If the PSP cannot handle Metal Gear, then just let it slip.  Card games and Metal Gear style espionage are about as far apart as an E and an AO rated game.  This will not win over Metal Gear fans, and it will only serve to be another black eye to the Metal Gear legacy (just like the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2).

So, in the end, the true solution is for games to just be kept true to the originals if they will be given the title of "sequel".  If a game cannot be properly handled by a current system, then it just wasn't meant to be.  Also, if a game is going to be corrupted in a new incarnation, at least make it a spin off like FF did with FF Tactics.  It's simple, easy, and will save the problems that can come from loyal customers feeling dissatisfied.


So, another year is drawing to a close.  It's been an unusual year with the Fall of insanity with too many games and too little time and money to go around.  It also was a year of Sony once again doing their best to do their worst.  In the end, things were pretty good, but some lessons need to be learned.  So, as this year draws to an end, so does this issue of Malik's Bitchings.  Happy New Years to all, and if you have the need, you can write me or put your thoughts to the forums.  Safe and happy New Years adventures to all of us.