<< Portico: Yet another reason not to get cable

6/02/2005

Yet another reason not to get cable

This year's E3 Game Critics Awards will be televised on the testosterone fueled Spike TV. Given that these awards are being judged by industry experts, I hope there will be a little more class and maturity than has been on display at Spike TV's annual game awards orgy, which usually has more rappers and B-movie actors than people actually connected to the industry. Given my lack of cable TV these days, I'll catch the recap later.

Taking a quick glance at the judges for this event, I find it surprising that so many non-gaming publications have judges on the panel. Maxim Magazine? Rolling Stone? Time Magazine? CNN/Money? (On a side note, why are games usually put in the business or tech sections instead of the entertainment section?) No sign of my occasional platform, Computer Gaming Magazine though both of its rival US mags are represented. The big three game review sites are there, and so is Gamesdomain, once my favorite of them all. Some very capable judges on are the panel. Greg Kasavin, Marc Saltzman, Jeff Green - three of my favorite writers right there.

Zero women. ZERO. Why does this continually surprise me...

On to the games themselves. Well, the strategy and PC stuff.

The strategy category is all PC Games. While PC zealots might like to trumpet the continuing dominance of our favorite platform in this genre, the failure of game developers to find a way to make strategy work on the console might have serious ramifications for the health of the genre.

The titles are the usual suspects.

Age of Empires III (Ensemble Studios/Microsoft)
Civilization IV
(Firaxis Games/2K Games)
Company of Heroes
(Relic/THQ)
Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends (Big Huge Games/Microsoft)
Star Wars Empire At War (Petroglyph Games/LucasArts)

Spore was nominated in the simulation category, though it could fit here just as easily. It's also a nominee for Best of Show, and it has to be the odds on favorite even though it is up against one of the three new consoles.

The strategy nominees are not an interesting bunch, sadly. I am looking forward to all of them, but only one of the five is not a franchise title. Company of Heroes looks like Combat Mission in real time, and could be the sleeper hit of the year. But most of the gaming press over the next twelve months will go to the new games from LucasArts and the three giants of strategy gaming - Meier, Reynolds and Shelley. Though Rise of Legends is, to me, probably the most interesting title on the list, Age of Empires III or Empire at War are probably the favorites. Both have more finished at this point and Empire can cruise on the goodwill generated by a not-crappy movie.

Age of Empires III is also nominated for best PC Game, but is up against Spore. Even though we don't know all that much about Spore at this point, the post-E3 buzz is so strong that it will be a major upset if it loses. And, if it does, Battlefield 2 or Prey are more likely winners than AoE.

Previous strategy winners do provide an interesting perspective on the genre.

2004 - Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth (EA)
2003 - Rome: Total War (Creative Assembly/Activision)
2002 - Command and Conquer: Generals (EA)
2001 - Age of Mythology (Ensemble/Microsoft)
2000 - Black and White (Lionhead/EA) - Best of Show, Best PC Game, Best Original
1999 - Homeworld (Relic/Sierra)
1998 - Homeworld (Relic/Sierra) RTS
1998 - Alpha Centauri (Firaxis/EA) TBS

First, there have been no turn based winners since they had a turn based specific award in 1998.
Second, there is no vaporware here, though the E3 awards have often been criticized for giving awards to games that are nowhere near finished. ((Both Homeworld and Black and White did win some sort of award in two consecutive years, but neither missed a release date by more than a year.)

Third, there are no games here that could be called bad or misfires. Black and White wasn't the triumph that people expected, but wasn't terrible either. There are none of the "Say what?" moments that you see in other genres or awards. (the yet unreleased Team Fortress 2, Sims Online, Majestic, Auto Modellista).

This third point is easy to explain. Strategy games are harder to sell based on flash, glamor or licenses. People come to the strategy genre with a certain set of expectations and these expectations are probably harder to overcome than in other genres. Age of Empires III still needs to look like Age of Empires, Company of Heroes has to convey the impression of war. Tech demos only get you so far in this field. As impressed as people are by graphics, even the most pixel happy observer wants a little more from a strategy game.

I could not go to E3 this year, so if any of you readers were there, please pipe in with your observations. Do the nominees surprise anyone? What happened to 1C Games, the Russian company that had eight billion games on display? Any pet projects not here?

7 Comments:

Anonymous Paul Stephanouk said...

The game that is most notably missing from this list is Rick Goodman's "Rise and Fall". As luck would have it their website recently came online at http://www.stainlesssteelstudios.com/Rise.html. The scale of their ships seems really exciting. Their hero-mode is also fresh and they seem rightfully very excited about that. I'm interested in it, but if I don't sound amazed it's only because I’m a jaded RTSer and will need to actually play it before I can judge. But the ships, oh man the ships. They got my cash the minute I saw one ship grapple, board, and capture an enemy.

Those are some powerhouse titles on that list and it's a real honor to be in their ranks. Every one of those games is going to suck up a significant part of my life.

Now if I can only put down this damn PSP. It could SO be a monster strategy gaming platform...

6/02/2005 11:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Computer Gaming Magazine?" Sheesh.

In case you're curious, I declined to participate in the E3 awards years ago. I don't think it's appropriate it rate unfinished games (which is what you're doing when you say one is better than the other), and I definitely don't want to be involved with an award that's solely designed to be used as a marketing tool by companies. Since consumers can't actually buy the game in the current state, what value does this award have to consumers? Drive more pre-orders? As if that's our job...

steve, computer gaming magazine (cough)

6/03/2005 02:37:00 PM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

Oops. Sorry about the typo. It was late and I was...um...mistyping.

Anyway, I didn't know CGM had voluntarily withdrawn. I guess you had to do so to be in line with your editorial policy, but I'm not sure that rating what is on display is exactly the same as saying as that you are saying that the game will be the best.

In a way, it's like commenting on a demo, I suppose, and no one reviews those.

E3 is a marketing exercise, so how does choosing a "winner" differ all that much from even covering what's on display? What you choose to cover and not to cover is an indication of what you as a magazine think is important and noteworthy, too. But CGM is covering E3, I assume.

6/03/2005 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not a huge deal, I suppose, but this is a vaporware award. And I'm not sure the press should be going even further beyond what we alread do in promoting games down the road (he says after finishing up a 30+ page preview guide).

Spore, to use one example, isn't much more than a concept at the moment. There's probably a good chance it'll win despite not having a final interface, any game balance, or much "real" functionality.

It's an awesome concept, for sure, one that was demoed only for judges behind closed doors, in a very controlled way. That kind of speical treatment isn't reserved for every game. (Some companies even held special pre-E3 game demos for "Best of E3" judges.)

Did all of those judges see every game at the show? Did they spend as much time with games in Kentia Hall as they did with Spore, and Quake IV, and the others they expect will win? Are they uncovering the truly hidden gems, or just giving the publishers another graphic to use in their ads?

Anyway, Spore won't win "Best Concept," or "Greatest Potential." It'll probably win "Best of E3." Do people view that as award it for its concept, or its potential? Or do they think it's the best game of the show? I'm guessing it's the latter. (If they just changed the name, I'd have almost no issue with the award.)

Regardless, it's still saying there's some sort of qualitative difference between games that are worlds apart in terms of where they are in their development. It's not a level playing field, by any stretch, therefore it's not really a fair award.

On top of that, by using critics from a number of publications, it gives the award more prominence and credibility. It gets mainstream coverage. And it's a bit odd to have an awards show about games that may come out next year or beyond.

I'm not sure of the value to consumers of such a thing. I think it has tons of value to publishers, though. (So do previews, and "Hottest Games of 2006" type articles, so I'm probably just being a hypocrite or something.)

6/03/2005 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with some of the points here. Specifically:

The logic of your post seems to game out to: because there are dishonest people misrepresenting their products it follows that there should be no attempt to qualify or discuss upcoming game releases. That seems wide of the mark.

I suggest that the issue is that: because there are dishonest people misrepresenting their products it follows that an award or other media tool attempting to qualify or discuss upcoming game releases should set criteria that minimizes bad behavior and the effect of such.

For example: X-Play only considers games that they can play for their E3 awards. Are you suggesting that E3 episode of X-Play holds no value to the gamer interested in what games may be coming out in the next year? I'd strongly disagree with you if you do.

I would very much like the official E3 awards to shore up their credibility and make themselves less subject to abuse. That is a different issue than the idea that there is no use in the first place for qualifying ANY unreleased game.

Lastly let me correct your use of the term vaporware. Vaporware is a term used to mean a product that exists solely as a marketing construct. If I can play a game on the floor of E3 it is demonstrably NOT vaporware. It may be unreleased or even unfinished but that's not even close to automatically being the same thing. Even games I can't play personally are not automatically vaporware, however the observable evidence for proving them real may sometimes be challenging. I wouldn't fault anybody who uses the "if I can't play it, it ain't real" metric. Given the amount of manipulation of the award process we're seeing these days that would be a healthy attitude. Considering all speculation and qualification of unreleased games as worthless is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Now if you'll excuse me. I'm going to go watch the Killzone PS3 video and wish it was a real game.

6/03/2005 11:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The logic of your post seems to game out to: because there are dishonest people misrepresenting their products it follows that there should be no attempt to qualify or discuss upcoming game releases."

That's not really what I'm getting at, though I realize I'm not exactly being clear. I'm pretty opposed to rating incomplete products--I don't review betas either--so this is just an extension of that policy to me.

I have no issue with discussing upcoming game releases, however. I do think they should be done carefully, because it's easy to say, "Oh my god, that's awesome!" and then have the shipping product have none of the features, making the editorial people look like idiots. And it gets readers to pre-order.

All of the awards require a game be playable, but they don't require all features to be present. If you've seen a few game demos, you know that there's a huge disconnect between what's shown (or playable) and what's discussed. A developer can say, "The AI will do this and this," but can rarely demonstrate it until very late in a game's development. AI just isn't something that's finalized early on, like a 3D engine. You also can't test balance, or other elements that critical to whether Game X or Game Y is "better."

I know people are interested, because we all like competition, or whether Game X is better than Game Y. What I'm trying to get at is that it's unfair (and useless) to compare Game X and Y while they're in development. It's not an even playing field. One may be near completion, another may be due in two years. You're comparing what one game does to what another might do.

The one due in two years can promise the world, show some gameplay, and win an award. The one coming out this year may not promise the world, because they already realized they couldn't deliver the world and yanked those features out.

Black & White won two different "Best of E3" awards based on what Peter Molyneux said it would be like, not what he was able to show (which was also cool, but only a tiny subset of the whole game). The final game only did about 50% of what he promised.

I've no issue with reporting that Peter Molyneyeux hopes his game will have X, Y, and Z. But when you give it an award, I think you cross a line into outright promotion.

There is also the larger issue of what you discuss, of fixing the contest rather than throwing it out.

But to make it truly fair, it would require all judges to see all games an equal amount of time; one person can't see hundreds of games for, say, 30 minutes to get a good feel for whether or not they're more than just a smoke and mirror demo. They only spend that much time with the handful of games that are sort of pre-selected to win.

EA pre-selected Spore, by offering it only to E3 judges behind closed doors. Other games have received similar treatment in past years. For example, the judges let Activision know DOOM 3 wouldn't be eligible one year unless they could play it, so they were given additional access. Was this offer made to every company at the show?

I know the definition of vaporware, though I'd argue that all games in preview form are essentially marketing constructs. They're not available to the public, and there's no guarantee that they'll ever be available until they're actually on shelves.

There was a company years ago--Scavenger, I think--that had a bunch of playable games at the show. They made a huge splash. I think one of the games was called "Into the Shadows." I even had a build of it at one point. None of the games ever shipped.

Had there been E3 awards, I guarantee they would have won a bunch. They promised the world, and the games looked and sounded phenomenal. In the end, they delivered... nothing. (I think they did ship some lousy race game, then disappeared.)

6/04/2005 05:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hah, I just did a quick Google on "Into the Shadows" and found that its creators went on to be Starbreeze Studios, creator of the superb Chronicles of Riddick.

6/04/2005 05:55:00 PM  

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