Videogame News 11-24-12
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Editor, The Konformist
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How Dan Houser helped turn Grand Theft Auto into a cultural phenomenon
Dan Houser and his brother Sam are responsible for some of the most fascinating (and controversial) video games ever
The Guardian, Sunday 18 November 2012
There isn't another video game firm in the world like Rockstar Games. Founded in 1998 by Dan Houser and his brother Sam, it has been responsible for some of the most fascinating, successful and controversial video games ever, including the groundbreaking Grand Theft Auto series (120m sales and counting) and the vast wild west adventure, Red Dead Redemption.
Yet little is known about the inner workings of this multinational publisher and developer. The company does not attend industry events such as the huge E3 exhibition in Los Angeles, and unlike most execs in this industry, the Housers rarely court publicity for themselves.
I meet with Dan in New York, at an astounding Lower East Side apartment owned and rented out by the horror film director Marcus Nispel. Rockstar is in the process of introducing the press to its latest title Grand Theft Auto V, and clearly wants to make an impression hence the venue, and hence the presence of Dan Houser for a handful of interviews. He is, it turns out, affable, passionate and hugely eloquent about game design and culture. He also looks tired. When I ask how far in advance the team starts planning its next games, he laughs wearily. "We don't start until the very end of a project. At the moment, the thought of even doing another Grand Theft Auto is so appalling we've got so much work left to do to finish this one. It's overwhelming!"
It was Sam who kicked the Rockstar story off. In 1996 he was heading the interactive division of music label BMG, which was experimenting in the new-fangled games business. Sam had heard about developer DMA Design, based in Dundee, which was working on a crazy crime action game named Grand Theft Auto, in which players drove around a city, robbing banks and fighting cops. It had 2D graphics and looked dated compared to everything else. "What did I think when I first saw it?" says Dan. "Well to begin with I had the natural reaction 'what is Sam talking about?'! The code would literally run for 10 seconds and crash. But when you started playing you understood the magic."
Released in 1997, Grand Theft Auto was a modest success, but BMG was losing money and desperate to get out of games, so it sold its interactive division to Take Two for a paltry $9m. Take Two invited Sam Houser to start up a new publishing arm in New York; Sam agreed, on the condition he could do it under his brand, Rockstar. The next release was the seminal Grand Theft Auto III, which switched to modern 3D polygonal graphics, added a licensed CD soundtrack and became the biggest game of 2001. Subsequent sequels, including the 80s-obsessed GTA: Vice City and the darker GTA IV, pushed boundaries of game design and structure.
Dan Houser is a lead writer on all Rockstar titles. He works with a small team, including Rupert Humphries (son of comedian Barry Humphries), to create the huge scripts and interlocking stories that give shape to the company's giant open-world titles. At first, the studio was hugely influenced by movies such as Brian de Palma's Scarface, Reservoir Dogs and Boyz N the Hood, but as the GTA series went on, Houser says they began to find their own voice.
"You know, with those first 3D games, we were trying to make something that had the aspirations to be like a movie," he says. "I don't want oversell this, but by GTA IV, we wanted to try to find something that could be better than movies in a way more alive and more vibrant. It was time to move on and do our own thing."
GTA V, due out next spring, is the sprawling and impressively intricate realisation of that ambition. The game is set in Los Santos, Rockstar's Los Angeles, and features three very different criminals seeking to pull off a series of daring heists. The world is vast, taking in a whole city as well as mountain ranges, deserts and outback towns. Characters will have unprecedented freedom flying helicopters, scuba diving, even playing sports. It is astonishingly ambitous. How does the team begin such a massive creative project? "For us, it starts with the characters," says Houser. "The story is always driven by the characters it's always got to feel like someone you want to be propelled through the game world with. Then we'll find a cool, interesting and amusing cast to juxtapose them with, and make sure we've got a good range of types. If the process feels organic to us then we're heading in the right direction."
For Dan, the direction now is toward something entirely new. We talk a little about how, in the digital age, interactive and linear content are merging: families and couples now share games in the same way they once shared television. He sees GTA V as at the vanguard of a new entertainment era. "This game, if we get it right, will be a step toward some kind of organic living soap opera," says Houser. "You have these three characters and they're all living when you're not with them. What that means, we don't really know yet, we're only getting it working for the first time. But it feels to us something powerful."
Throughout the 90s, the Grand Theft Auto titles were targeted by tabloids and rightwing pressure groups for their depiction of casual violence. It all exploded in 2005 with the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; Sam Houser and several members of the development team were interrogated by the Federal Trade Commission when an explicit sex scene, which had been cut from the game but left hidden in its source code, was discovered by hackers. A year later, the company was let off with a warning, but the experience left its mark.
"It was draining and upsetting a tough time in the company," says Houser. And that's all he'll say, but the emotion is there and in some ways this terrifying period seems to have shaped Rockstar's relationship with the press, and with the outside world. He sighs heavily.
"The massive social decay that we were supposed to induce hasn't happened. So in that regard, a lot of those debates that used to go on, they're not such a big deal now. We never felt that we were being attacked for the content, we were being attacked for the medium, which felt a little unfair. If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie, people wouldn't have blinked an eye. And there are far bigger issues to worry about in society than this."
But the brothers' reluctance to go in front of the media is about more than their past experiences, it's about how their company works. "Our skill has been in creating that environment where hundreds of people can flourish," Houser says. "It is far better than my ability or otherwise to write, or Sam's to tune games creating the environment and working together is what makes us proud. Journalists are obsessed with biography stories, but it's not relevant to us. It's always been about the company. Every different person here has their own weaknesses, their own hang-ups but together we produce magic."
It sounds like company PR, but Houser is earnest and honest. The team is everything, Rockstar is a gang; and its relationship with the world is defined by that. He is also unexpectedly self-effacing. Towards the end of the interview I ask him what he'd be doing now if GTA had failed. He leans forward, opens another Coke and thinks for a second. "I can't answer your question because I've always done this," he jokes. "My family thought I was a loser, so my brother gave me a job and I've spent the last 15 years trying to justify it. I've done that to the best of my ability and it's been enormous fun."
Review: Wii U isn't perfect, but worth the price
November 19th, 2012
Made by: Nintendo
Price: $299 for 8gb model with Gamepad controller; $349 for 32gb premium model with Gamepad controller and "Nintendo Land" game
Available at: Major retailers but supplies are very limited if you didn't preorder the unit.
There's no doubt in my mind that the Nintendo Wii U will be one of the biggest (and most sought-after) gifts this holiday season. There's no doubt that finding a Wii U won't be hard. With stores sold out of the console, the real question is how much will the device cost you?
Nintendo enjoyed a huge consumer demand for their newest console, the Wii. The Wii, which included the popular WiiSports, sold millions of units, most of it from word of mouth. Mothers and older citizens loved it. Children loved it. Nongamers enjoyed the Wii. Hardcore gamers, however, often were skeptical of the Wii's success. It wasn't made for the hardcore players it was made and pushed by people who weren't traditional gamers. Hardcore gamers wanted HD graphics, action mixed with violence and awesome performance in video games.
Nintendo, faced with criticism and sagging sales, decided to revamp the Wii. They decided to offer HD graphics, increased performance and hardcore games to win back veteran gamers and have achieved their goal with the Wii U.
The Wii U not only offers great graphics (up to 1080P, via HDMI) and the ability to play Wii games on the console (and use Wii accessories, such as the Wii Remote), but it offers a new way to play games. The controller, called the Gamepad, offers the ability to play Wii U games on the Gamepad's screen. On a few games, you can use the Gamepad as a second display, showing a map on it while your main television screen shows the actual game.
Not a fan of what's on television? You can use the Gamepad to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube (at press time, these features were not available to try out), surf the Web and visit amazon.com and buy more Wii U games. You can also program the Gamepad as a universal remote. You can control your television inputs with the Gamepad, volume and change channels. It had no problem finding my television maker (Vizio).
As slick as the Gamepad is, action games with dual displays (this can be disabled) the same action on both displays can be very distracting. When I played "Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge," I played the game on the Gamepad as it was shown on the television screen. However, duplicate displays are only good if you are watching another TV station. It can be very distracting and your eye will hate switching between your television and the Gamepad. While I played "Ninja Gaiden," the action was so intense my mind had a very hard time figuring out which display to keep an eye on.
Another drawback for the Wii U? You can't play your original Wii games on the Gamepad. As slick as the Gamepad is, you have to dust off your Wii accessories and sync them if you want to play "Trauma Center" or "Red Steel" or even "Wii Fit." Yes, you can play your Wii game, just not on your Gamepad.
If you aren't comfortable getting your game on with the Gamepad? You can buy a Pro Controller which resembles a Microsoft Xbox 360 controller and play several games with it. It gives you the look and feel of a controller that several console gamers are used to.
Overall, I have been bombarded with questions about is the Wii U worth the upgrade, especially from people who own original Wiis that haven't been turned on in years. After spending time with the Wii U, I think it's safe to say it's definitely WORTH the price. If you have Wii games and accessories already, you are good to go. From the new party games "Nintendo Land" to the action games "ZombiU" and "Ninja Gaiden 3" the Wii U offers something for every gamer. The only challenge you will likely face is finding on for the original retail price.
My recommendation? BUY.
Xbox 720 to offer Kinect 2.0 and Blu-ray drive, says Xbox World
The next-gen console will come with beefier hardware and a slew of other enhancements, says the magazine.
Lance Whitney November 19, 2012
Microsoft's Xbox 720 will unveil a new version of Kinect, a Blu-ray drive, and an A/V port for watching and recording broadcast TV, at least according to details leaked by Xbox World.
Promising "next-gen secrets inside," the latest issue of the U.K.-based magazine dug up several reported specs on Microsoft's next console.
First off, the Xbox 720 will introduce Kinect 2.0.
Microsoft has been as publicly mum about the next version of Kinect as it has about all details concerning the new Xbox. But a company document leaked in June touted a higher level of accuracy, stereo imaging, better voice recognition, and the ability to track four players at once.
A Blu-ray drive will also be part of the package, a rumor that's been around for a few years now.
Other features will include directional audio, an input and output for watching and recording TV shows, and an "innovative controller," noted gaming news site ComputerAndVideoGames.com (CVG). Last February, Xbox World said that the redesigned controller would come with a built-in HD touch screen.
Microsoft is also eyeing AR (augmented reality) glasses for the 720 at some future stage.
Codenamed Durango, the new Xbox would be powered by a CPU with "four hardware cores, each divided into four logical cores" and 8GB of RAM.
Dan Dawkins, Xbox World's editor in chief, told CVG that "Xbox World has been at the cutting edge of Durango coverage for over 12 months. Unless something really dramatic changes, everything...will be revealed long before E3 in June."
PlayStation 4 won't play PS3 games, will stream classics through Gaikai
Anthony John Agnello
November 16, 2012
New details about the PlayStation 3's successor: First, Orbis isn't the final name, but PlayStation 4 is out. Second, games will look like Lucasarts' Star Wars: 1313. Finally, no backwards compatibility in the new console but classics will be in the cloud.
While the PlayStation 3 celebrates a major milestone even as its sun starts to fade, rumors about the heir to the PlayStation throne continue to leak out of the game development world. The latest details about the fourth generation machine come from Europe, shedding new light on how the PlayStation 4 or Orbis will support 4K resolution output, how used games will be handled by the console, and just how Sony will leverage the recently purchased Gaikai cloud-gaming service in its machine.
British magazine PSM3 (the details of which were reprinted by German website The G Net) provides a wealth of new information to supplement a recent story about the console that confirmed Sony will not call its console PlayStation 4. The reason: The Japanese word for 4 is "shi," which also happens to mean death. While it might seem silly to break from nearly two decades of successful branding because a two words sound alike, it's important to remember how branding has negatively affected the Xbox and Xbox 360 in Japan. Where "X" marks the spot in the US, it's a negative sign in Japanese culture. (Hence why the circle button on PlayStation controllers is used to confirm most actions in Japanese games, not the X button like in the US.)
PSM3's source claims that the device, which Sony refers to by the codename Orbis, will play games that look similar to recent tech demos for games like Star Wars 1313 and Square-Enix's Agni's Philosophy demo. These games, however, will not run in 4K resolution as has been hinted at in the past. If 4K playback support does make it into the final version of the fourth generation PlayStation, it will be for video.
Sony will be taking more severe measures against piracy. Previous rumors about the Orbis suggested that Sony might try to block used, disc-based games from working on the console. This new report claims that it will do so by linking each individual game to a specific PlayStation Network account.
Unlike past Sony consoles, Orbis will not have backwards compatibility with PlayStation 3, at least not with Blu-ray disc games. Sony will instead offer classic games through a cloud-based streaming service run through Gaikai's infrastructure.
Of all the rumors surrounding the next PlayStation, its lack of backwards compatibility is the most disappointing. PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi was insistent that every PlayStation made be able to play the previous consoles' discs at a hardware level. Obviously Sony started moving away from this philosophy swiftly with the very first hardware revisions of the PlayStation 3, but it's still sad.
The PlayStation 4, Orbis, or whatever Sony decides to name it, is expected to debut at E3 2013.
Review: The Sims 3 Seasons brings good cheer
Since its release in 2009, The Sims 3 has seen a number of expansions and add-ons to enhance its core gameplay. Over its course, we've seen pets, new traits, items, clothing, careers, and even supernatural creatures all added to the game. In short, the game basically has it all. But until recently, The Sims 3 has lacked one vital feature: seasons.
The Sims 3, which prides itself on being the most in-depth simulator on the market, has missed out on the one key element of every day life: weather. Is it only me, or does it seem a bit strange that the game has received zombies and fairies before snow and rain?
Regardless of the reasoning behind the release timing, The Sims 3 Seasons and the weather patterns that accompany it are now here to stay. Well, that's if you don't turn the feature off. But having played The Sims 3 Seasons and experiencing weather in the game for the first time, I can't imagine this game existing without it anymore. It's quite amazing how the simple element of weather can change a gameplay experience, but that exactly what The Sims 3 Seasons has done.
I'll admit, the past few expansions have been somewhat disappointing for me. New clothing, new traits -- it all just seemed like extra stuff that didn't add any real value to the game. Sure, the same thing could be said for Seasons, but the simple fact is that the game has been totally revitalized with the addition of weather. It's not just random rain or snow; seasons in The Sims 3 has added a sense of purpose to time, aside from aging.
In its default, the seasons change every seven days. This can be easily adjusted in the options menu, but I found it to be a pretty reasonable amount to time. Everything relating to weather is fully customizable. You can adjust the amount of time each season lasts and even remove a season all together. Not a fan of the weather that accompanies the season? Rather than force you to sit through rain, you can turn it off.
Honestly though, after experiencing the weather effects, I wouldn't. The thunderstorms, though occurring more than I would like, are really fascinating to watch. EA has put an incredible amount of detail into the effects, to the point that you can see each drop of rain fall from the roof of the house. Though it looked great on my computer, I can see how those with an older PC might have trouble running some of the effects -- especially since The Sims 3 has been suffering from memory problems for the past few add-ons.
Aside from weather changes for each season, you now have a dedicated "Leisure" day. This is simply EA's politically correct way of representing the most recognized holiday for that season. For spring it's Easter, summer it's like the 4th of July, fall it's Halloween, and for winter it is Christmas/Hanukkah. During this day, which you are given off from work for, you can attend the season's festival.
Any world that you're playing in features a unique festival during each season filled with tons of new objects and events for you to experience. During the summer, you can compete in the annual hot dog eating contest, or you can carve a pumpkin during the fall. With it being the winter season now, you may find yourself skipping towards the snowball fight.
There are other activities you can perform during the seasons, as well. You can decorate your house with the appropriate seasonal decorations, go on an egg hunt, bob for apples, and -- for the first time ever -- swim in the ocean! There are plenty of new activities to keep you busy in The Sims 3 Seasons.
Of course, seasons do come with a price. New to the game are allergies and colds. In the spring, those who have allergies and spend their time outdoors risk the chance of getting the new Allergy Haze moodlet, causing them to sneeze and blow their nose. This is easily treatable with a quick visit to the hospital, but it's also a trip that's not really needed. Why can't I just enjoy the seasons without having to worry about the consequences that accompany them in real-life? The same is said for the chance Sims have of catching a cold. It's just a hassle.
Speaking of hassle, Seasons has added a brand new Blueprint Mode that lets you place fully furnished blueprints of a room on the ground to quickly build a brand new house. One of the best aspects of The Sims 3 is the house customization, but as everyone knows, this is also the most time consuming. The blueprint allows you to place the basic house foundation and then go back and tweak it to your liking. Needless to say, I still spent hours on my house. Hey, if I can't have it in real life, why not in a game?
As expected, The Sims 3 Seasons adds your accompanying furniture, songs (though there aren't holiday songs, there is are short 'musical phrases'), and clothing to let you dress for the occasion. I recommend an umbrella for when it rains and snow gear for the cold, or else you'll be stuck with a very unhappy Sim. I would have liked to see some more Create a Sim options, however.
Overall, The Sims 3 Seasons is one of the best expansions the game has received in quite a while. The simple addition of weather adds a breath of fresh air into the now three-year-old game. The only problem is now that we have seasons, where does EA go from here? I suppose that's part of the fun with The Sims 3; you never know what you're going to get next. Let's hope it's not a cold during the Holidays. Remember to bundle up!