Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Xbox Live – Nintendo's Next Target?

With next month's new format E3 (July 11th to July 13th) looming over us like a mysterious cloud, there's recently been rumblings of Nintendo unveiling an Xbox Live style downloads system for Wii. Given the popularity of the format and the Japanese company's ever growing desire to expand its media functions it seems that we may get the first glimpse of this at July's Expo.

However, there's the typical array of secrecy surrounding what shape and style this system is going to take. System 3 CEO, Mark Cale, has already gone on record stating it will likely ape XBL (as forthcoming and downloadable title, Impossible Mission, will be among the first to take advantage of this), although given how polished Microsoft's entry into the field has been and the fact it's had almost two generations and the home PC format to get it right, it remains to be seen just how Nintendo will handle it all, taking in mind the company's rather finicky attitude to internet connectivity in general.

Clouding the issue further is the ever-present storage question. If a large download-heavy procedure was introduced to Wii, a solution outside the machine's 512MB of internal memory and the current 'you can use some external hard drives but not others' interim, has to be viable and very visible. At the moment there's no standard catch-all hard drive that Nintendo endorses for Virtual Console titles, which some users find irritating to say the least – especially as Nintendo has gone over the 4.7 million mark for VC games sold.

Which is why there's also the possibility of such a hard drive being announced for Wii next month. Makes perfect sense. Although Nintendo will probably not be entirely happy to splinter its user-base into those who have a HDD and those who don’t (especially as it would potentially mean having to create a pack-in SKU as so penetration will be higher), the dangers of NOT providing gamers with an approved alternative is far more perilous. Both Microsoft and Sony have various SKU options for Xbox 360 and PlayStation3, so Nintendo wouldn’t be alone and would have the advantage of the huge and rapidly growing audience Wii has accumulated, so there's less chance of totally alienating the consumer. And in reality, it's something often aimed at the generally more hardcore demographic who will be filling their machines with VC titles anyway. With larger games around the corner, such as Neo Geo's back catalogue (which can be anything up to 330MB per cart), an HDD is invaluable – but it would also provide a handy entry point for the new download system. Better yet would be the chance of entertaining memory intensive titles, such as Sports Interactive's Football Manager, should Wii's internal RAM be up to the task.

So, if Nintendo filters into this wonderful realm of high storage and downloadable content, what can we expect? Here's a rundown of some of the features Xbox Live has and what could be the Nintendo equivalent.

Live Arcade
Obviously there's already the Virtual Console on Wii which is like Xbox Live Arcade, but with a new and redesigned system in place the options open up a little more. For one, a streamlined way of accessing your games (prioritised folders, the ability to zoom out the menu to see more channels at once, and so on) would be ideal, given channel pages can get slightly unwieldy after a while. On top of that, increased storage opportunities could make arcade game conversions a possibility, although the complications of those conflicting with arcade-to-home versions on the VC's emulated home formats means there's a political minefield to avoid. Not to mention the size of the ROMs, although this would be less of an issue by comparison.

The downloads shop page layout should also get a little change for the better, too. There are currently so many titles to go through that the process can be deeply laborious. An update would solve this fairly quickly.

Original Titles
It's taken a while for companies to truly get into the swing of developing original titles on Xbox Live, and seeing how relatively difficult it is to get development kits for Wii it should really be no surprise that we've not been graced with any on Nintendo's machine so far. But they ARE coming. If there's a launch of the new service this year, it would only make sense to roll it out with something worth playing. Impossible Mission will be among the first, with other System 3 titles expected. The freshly announced Geometry Wars: Galaxies would have been ideal, but that title has already been confirmed for retail sale because of its hugely expanded nature (actual levels, new weapons, enemies, multiplayer modes and much more than the brilliant Xbox Live original). So that means something else will have to be the draw. And while a killer app is not typically needed for a feature like this, it would certainly kick things off with a bang. Third-parties in particular could benefit massively with a well timed hit, without the 'threat' of Nintendo's dominance throwing a spanner in the works, as is often feared at retail.

With the ability to store more via a hard drive, demos would be far more likely should Nintendo take the plunge. The company has been reticent in offering demos to users for… well, ever, partly through its use of propriety mediums that it controls directly to increase profits and lessen piracy (hence the reason why you rarely ever seem them on magazines or giveaways). But as demos are now part and parcel of home console culture it would be risky to ignore the clamouring for them; made even more important through digital distribution facilitating the process, especially from a third-party point of view. A dedicated channel would be fairly undemanding to set-up and undoubtedly popular, although perhaps not so much with publishers trying fob off duff games to impulse buying punters.

Other Forms Of Entertainment
Late last year Microsoft ventured into the heady realm of downloadable TV shows and movies for the U.S., which has so far been a tricky, but eventually well formed undertaking. The chances of Nintendo following suit are extremely slim. The big N has been far too muddled with over its overall online message to suddenly take a dip into what would likely be a logistical nightmare for such a relatively centralised company. At the moment it can barely get its ducks in-line for the re-launch of its European website, let alone deal with the complications of various networks and licensing across dozens of territories, just for a handful of shows.

What's far more probable is the release of trailer, DVD and music channels to finally let us stream previews, watch movies and listen to our CDs. There are already many online sites that allow for streaming via Wii's superb internet channel and the results are great. It's generally accepted that the hardware wouldn’t need any changes if a software update can do this job, so it could be just a matter of Nintendo biding its time. Well, either that or wanting to release a more expensive, multimedia Wii down the line. Ugh.

Online Lobby
It's doubtful we'll see any true voice chat style implement given Nintendo's eternal fear of Pedobear (which is the same reason we'll probably not see an Xbox Live Vision camera type device either), but something that could compete with Sony's magnificent Home hub on PS3 would bridge the gap a little. Take a look at this comprehensive feature on the possibilities involving Miis, which could be a great way of making all the above accessible and fun without the relative dryness that Xbox Live has.

The Nintendo Touch
Knowing Nintendo, there are a lot of other frivolous extras planned along the lines of its Everybody Votes channel. There's already been talk of a Mii Popularity Channel, where you'll be able to compare Miis online and enter them in popularity contests, while other stuff could include stuff like a tips channel. A wide variation of bits and pieces to dip into, then, as long as doesn’t fall outside of Nintendo's 'safety rulebook', of course (made all the more ironic given the potential dangers inherent to an internet channel, but you know how Nintendo is…)

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Wii's Graphics - What's All The Fuss About?

"It's about as powerful as the original Xbox. The video hardware unfortunately is not as powerful. There's just a couple of key things that you can do on Xbox like shaders which you just cannot do on the Wii." - Tim Tschirner in a recent interview with Eurogamer for the Wii version of FIFA 08

Of course, this fairly innocuous statement about Wii's visual capabilities caused half the internet to blow up.

Wii's graphical ability is always going to be a bone of contention. That 'video' part of the term 'videogames' tends to be fairly important in the grand scheme of things, especially when we live in such a highly driven visual age. But really, are we not totally over the obsession with Wii's underachievement in this area yet? Must there truly be a massive explosion of verbal volleys launched every time a developer states something that suggests Wii is more/less powerful than the previous generation's hardware?

We're all to blame. Let’s be honest about this. We as fans, the developers, hell, even Nintendo president Satoru "you will say wow" Iwata has to admit to some of the flak which precedes the constant and predictable flood of arguments that surround Wii's graphical punch/slap/tickle. Very few official technical stats have emerged about the console's hardware, which so often becomes the ammunition for fanboys everywhere on all sides before a machine gets released. So the lingering question marks about what is viable and not have yet to subside. Ubisoft didn’t help things much releasing some rather spurious 'projection screenshots' of Red Steel that didn’t quite match up to the reality (although to be fair, at its prettiest the game comes close). And after Iwata intoned we'd be impressed by Wii's graphics, it raised expectations for some expecting Xbox 360 levels of visual sheen, albeit sans High Definition. Which was slightly ironic, because it's easy to forget the reaction of the hardcore demographic when Microsoft unleashed its first batch of titles a few months prior 360's launch; a mixture of apathy, derision and disappointment.

No matter how old we are, as gamers we can still be impressed by graphical gloss. But it's churlish to suggest we're as easily impressed as we used to be. Grand scale CGI is now commonplace in entertainment, and in terms of dimensions, videogames has long since exhausted the third one which has led to a rather limited jump in eye candy between the last generation and its contemporary; hence the comparatively muted reaction to many of the games we see, HD or no. The real progress has to be in geometry, physics and artificial intelligence -areas where 360 and PlayStation3 excel- but is obviously something screenshots can't project.

It's a given Wii is nowhere near as powerful as its rivals. And it's also accepted that in terms of what we will literally see from Nintendo's little white wonder, will likely be more in the region of Xbox and PS2 standards. At the same time, it's still as powerful as its predecessor, GameCube, which was no slouch in the video hardware stakes.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is; why the hell have so many Wii titles come out looking worse than the examples from any of those machines?

It's a more than valid question, and aside from the typical 'console wars' hyperbole, it's the main thing that has people scratching their heads over because from an outsider looking in, it just doesn’t make sense. The last generation lasted around six to seven years, with GameCube having a good run of that, but despite the leaps and bounds seen from that generations' conception to its twilight, many Wii games look worse than the bulk of that half decade-plus of gaming. Surely if Wii is pretty much a supercharged GameCube, developers would have got used to the hardware by now and be showing us stuff that exceeds the little purple box and its generational cohabitants?


Well, yes and no. Without any official stats it'll always be difficult to work out exactly why some companies are struggling so much with Wii's visuals. But there are many factors which have to be taken into account. The hardware architecture of Wii isn’t really just a simple matter of slotting in a video chip which is more powerful than the one boasted by GameCube. There's numerous other essentials, like its GPU, the CPU, the RAM and much more that can make a difference, and even if one part is substantially better than what we saw in the prior generation, another part could bring things down just as noticeably. Many programmers and designers may be familiar with GameCube, but it's not a basic case of shifting coding libraries and techniques from that to Wii. It's clear even more effort is needed; they may be both fruit, but it's still essentially apples and oranges. It's going to take time for some devs to make that change.

The other issue to take in mind (which becomes particularly potent when combined with the above one) is that many companies initially just wanted to shovel anything on Nintendo's machine to show a modicum of support, and are now suffering for it. Very few expected Wii to be as dominant as it has been so far, and a number of third parties threw large amounts of cash into 360 and PS3 development, which stands to reason given the strength of the brands and the fact they need more money on a whole to make the most of their visual potential. When Wii started selling out everywhere, these off-loaded projects became spotlight examples and cautionary tales. The lack of time spent on them showed. And what's resulted from that is we're only now seeing the fruits of six to ten months of development come to light. Some are playing catch up and making sure they have enough software for Holiday/Christmas 2007, which will mean, yes, we probably won't see any massive graphical improvements between now and then.

But as development money shuffles over to Wii, this time next year will be more telling in terms of seeing what the console is REALLY capable of. Because games take a lot of time to be created – and it's often a good year before we see market shifts and reflections, which is exactly why some have already claimed Wii the 'console war victor'; while we see the results of developers' work from last year and early 2007 on other formats now, at this moment they're are moving their resources over to Wii to show more force for the next 12 months, making the see-saw glut of software tip in the opposite direction. This will be especially true if Nintendo gets off its behind and lends more support to its partners. The games industry is, rather appropriately, very much like a playground in many respects.

In the meantime, it takes first parties like Nintendo's in-house teams to show the way. Super Mario Galaxy still remains stunning, as does Super Smash Bros. Brawl. A few other third party efforts are certainly showing some clout too, like Konami's Dewy's Adventure, Capcom's Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure, and some of Electronic Arts' titles (most notably, Boogie and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Arguably, none have the sheer potency that Factor 5 showed via its Star Wars: Rogue Squadron GameCube games, but very few have displayed the talent for graphics that developer has, full stop.

Which makes the most under-appreciated element of visuals, art direction, all the more important. Games like Okami, Wind Waker, Rogue Squadron III, God of War II and other older titles still look stunning because the artists take a slightly more unconventional route and make sure their games possess a 'timeless' quality. They stand up today and (let's be honest) look better than 95% of Wii's current catalogue. A good team of artists can make all the difference, and if developers want to stop being ridiculed on a visual level over their efforts, then they should perhaps start focusing more on not what they use to draw their visuals, but HOW they draw them.

We can shout about Wii 'not being about graphics' until we're blue in the face (it certainly doesn’t matter to the bulk of people buying, and my 360 satisfies the internal graphics whore inside me, so I'm happy), but the fact remains they still play an important part of the experience. I'm fairly sure it's not something that will affect future sales, because even though the gulf of difference between Wii and 360/PS3 is evident, it's also evident that the games buying public wants something a bit more gameplay oriented than a power bump can provide. And Wii offers that more than its rivals, so much to the point that in three years time when HD visuals are the norm and looking even more incredible, the audiences (and thus, developers) will be long settled in choosing which side of the fence they're on and it'll be largely academic.

Wii's visuals will get better. The hardware ceiling may be lower than we expect and there may not be as great a distance to go before we see the best of what the machine can offer, but it's probably enough to get by with. And with some clever art direction and a bit more cash, it will be reached. However in the meantime, while we wait for that -and indeed the next generation where great visuals AND motion controls will be standard- it's worth noting that while the lack of visual fidelity may be a tad annoying, the subsequent focus on motion controls should be more than a worthy trade-off. Because ultimately, Wii is acting as a trailblazer for the next ten years of videogames. And if companies like EA are being forced to change the way they think in making games for the better, taking gameplay and innovation over visuals, then maybe we should close our eyes to optical infirmity just this once and get on with the joys of actually playing our games… instead of constantly arguing over what they look like.

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Wii's Motion Controls - Not For Everyone

I've been gaming a hell of a long time. About 24 years, give or take; more than three-quarters of my relatively short life. And I've seen a lot of things come and go, attitudes change but stay the same, and generally watched everything repeat on itself throughout different eras.

One thing that has altered things slightly, however, is the strength and range of expressible opinion. As a child who grew up without one of the 21st century's most important inventions -the internet- opinion was something you mostly heard/offered to those you knew. Anyone within physical earshot. Letters and the media gave us all a voice, but ultimately we were in vacuums compared to now where the World Wide Web allows just about anyone with a computer to scream down the other's virtual ear. And we all want to do it as often as possible. It's not a case that everyone NOW has an opinion, but rather it's an opinion that everyone else can hear. And true to humanity's form, we'd rather use that wonderful power to argue and attack each other instead of trying to listen to all these fresh voices.

So it's no surprise, really, that when it comes to something like Wii's new way of controlling games, we find ourselves exasperated by impatience and intolerance.

There's a bit of a narrative jump between the last two paragraphs, so allow me test your patience a little. It won't take long. Certainly no longer than it takes to get used to the Wii remote and nunchuck with certain games, but therein lies the point. Come take a walk with me in the past for a moment…

When gaming first emerged, control methods were a hotchpotch of designs. The earliest of systems used dials, paddles, trackballs and keyboard style pads, but generally speaking by the time we got to the second full generation of consoles, joysticks meshed with all the above making it difficult to say there was a 'standard' controller across the medium. Arcades and increasingly powerful home computers only muddied the waters more.

It took the third (8-bit) generation to bring out a sense of conformity in competing console manufacturers, with the regulation of various D-pads that offered more precision than former methods. As gamers we adapted, but not without resistance. From a personal point of view, my family, who spent years crowding around my Atari 2600 playing Pac-Man, Combat and Spider-Man, baulked against such a change – two buttons and a cross-pad it may have only been, but that was more than enough to remove the simple charm of gaming. The younger members continued to play, but the older contingent decided that for them gaming stopped becoming a past-time and it became something 'past their time' instead.

Gamers slowly moved on. We went from two buttons to eventually six, and even more. The Super Nintendo's arrival was met with school-yard comments of "six buttons?! We'll be running out of fingers soon; how are you supposed to cope with that unless you hold the pad differently?"

But we adapted again. Teenage and casual mentalities growing into more hardcore configurations.

Come the age where Nintendo regulated the analog stick with its Nintendo 64, similar but different cries could be heard in colleges, universities and work-places. "Isn't it just like the old Atari sticks? Bit of a step backwards, really." All said without knowledge of the extra precision afforded by the N64's pad. However, watching some members of my friends and family, who were young enough to grow with gaming when others gave it up after the Atari age died, I realised they were still struggling. They didn’t use the analog stick in the way it was meant to be used; instead they used it like a digital pad: they didn’t utilise the degrees of movement; it was either tilted full-on or left at rest. For some, they still couldn’t work out what the big deal was because that period of adjustment took a while to set in. Classics like Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64 became a frustration, especially when more "reliable" forms of control were available on Sony's hugely successful PlayStation, which stuck to the more 'traditional' style of pad.

Jump five years on and every console used analog controllers. And that became the norm, with those who refused to evolve, leaving gaming. By then the internet was also deeply ingrained in our culture, giving us the ability to shout about any little thing and be heard around the world.

So when Wii flipped the script once again, the reaction was louder than ever before. No doubt had the internet been around or as mainstream during the days of transition between joysticks to D-pads, two buttons to six buttons, six buttons to more and D-pads to analog, we'd have heard the same cries of "why must there be change?" "What's the point?" "This feels gimmicky!" "We're regressing!" And so on. The indignation has remained, but the voice has simply got louder.

Part of the problem now, however, is that gaming has a history. The playing field hasn’t been level since the third generation of the medium, but these days we have those who have left and come back, those who are totally new and those who have maintained throughout it all. The layers are numerous and diverse. And like crotchety old men, there are some who refuse to change or want to change, regardless whether they've seen and experienced this repetitive reactionary loop or not. "The Wii remote doesn’t offer the accuracy of dual analog," they cry. "I don’t want less buttons," they bemoan. "I'll look like an idiot if I have to wave my arms around," they scream. And we hear it all. Never before has there been such a large forum for our voices to be heard, but ultimately we're saying the same things we've been saying the past 24 years. It's all relative.

Which is why we'll continue to get reviews that whinge about the Wii remote not offering what they want. Why some will spend a couple days on a game, in gritted teeth frustration, before firing off a 2,000 word piece about how Wii's motion control is a 'step backwards' or some other malady. It's happening right now as you read this.

Some of it will be fanboy baiting. Some of it will be fanboyism. Some of it will be reactionary anger against a different control method. And some of it will be totally genuine concern. But all of it reflects one thing:

A transition period.

It's so easy to forget that what we're experiencing right now -an inescapable glimpse of the medium's future- is merely a moment in time. While we have some gamers using the Wii controller like some of my friends and relatives used the N64 pad -totally missing the point of its features and then blaming it for their inability to adjust- we have to remember this is just step one of a controller revolution that has been part of gaming's culture since forever. As we saw complaints about the analog stick turn into praise when the majority finally 'got' it; we'll move on. Until everyone considers that as standard and something else will emerge to start the cycle again, complete with moans about how it 'doesn’t offer the accuracy of motion control', etc.

The Wii's remote isn’t perfect by any means. As with most 'Version 1.0' control methods, there are problems that will likely be ironed out and refined for subsequent generations (although it must be said, many of the issues are software rather than hardware related). But at the same time, there are those who will always talk about how they hate motion controls and how sloppy it is, without acknowledging stuff like the headshot rich high scores clocked up in Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition, compared to the GameCube version.

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The Manhunt 2 Ban Explained

I didn’t want to write about this.

But the topic seems to have blown up to epic proportions, and it would seem a little churlish to avoid it.

So, the Manhunt 2 ban. Good lord, what an unholy mess. While I've seen games come and go, hit over the head with the 'ban-stick' across numerous territories and generations, I can't remember a time where things have turned into a total landslide of chaos as we've witnessed with Rockstar's super violent action thriller.

For those who've been sleeping soundly under a very large rock the past week, let's quickly review what happened. First, Manhunt 2 gets banned in the U.K for both Wii and PlayStation2 (bizarrely, no mention was made of the PlayStation Portable version). The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rejected the game for release after going through its content and deciding it crossed a moral line via its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing". In other words, it showed 'immoral behaviour' that, while fitting within the game's story and established tone, was relentless and more than likely beyond what the medium has asked a player to actively participate in before. True to the first Manhunt, then, it would seem.

Director of the BBFC, David Cooke, went on to say that game has an "unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying" and lacks "alternative pleasures", which is to suggest that it's purely about hunting and slaughter. Unlike games such as Grand Theft Auto or other titles which may be brought up in this melee, Manhunt 2's reality is presented so that its gameplay consists of killing, hiding, a bit more killing… and very little else. Very few other gameplay components are there to take you away from the brutal assassination of those out to murder you; it's kill or be killed and that's about as far as it goes. Again, nothing really new to those familiar with Manhunt, on a whole.

Things got even worse when the American ratings board, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) slapped an Adult Only tag on Manhunt 2, which meant the game would instantly be limited to certain shops – dominant family based stores such as Wal-Mart refuse to stock titles with an AO rating, which takes away a massive chunk of potential retail. And just to add further insult to injury, neither Sony nor Nintendo allow AO rated software on their consoles (something Microsoft doesn’t allow, either). Not a particularly well thought-out system, seeing as it pretty much renders the AO classification utterly worthless, but that's a subject for another time. The bottom line is that all these fallen dominos effectively makes Manhunt 2 banned in the U.S. as well.

Where it leaves the game is something that will be decided soon, as Rockstar has just over a month to appeal, although it seems unlikely any minds will be changed. The BBFC is against any cuts or what would be deemed as a 'watered down' version of the game that would make it more suitable, but Rockstar could well do so to reduce its rating to a more market friendly 'Mature' classification for North America.

Although the question asked is, didn't Rockstar realise this was going to happen?

Cynical cries of 'publicity stunt' have rung around, somewhat predictably, yet it's hard to say if this is totally fair. The controversial company has long courted outrage and flagrantly flaunted its freedoms to vocal moral forces who have been in running battles against the GTA maker for well over a decade. Rockstar certainly knows how to gather free publicity, although to state there's no such thing as bad press would be naïve – Bully (nee Canis Canem Edit) suffered from a sales point of view after some shops refused to sell it in the light of an utterly misguided witch-hunt which didn't reflect the game's content at all. Negative press CAN neuter a title's potential, especially in this age where certain publications, people and… lawyers, are waiting in the wings to try and take anything they deem unsuitable off the shelves.

If Rockstar is indeed playing the Press with Manhunt 2, it's a dangerous game indeed. Yes, there are now millions who have heard of the title who may not have even known it existed before – the very epitome of good marketing. And yes, a big red button has been slapped on Manhunt 2, making it irresistible to those curious to see just how bad it could be. But if the game fails to reach stores, it's all for naught. So has Rockstar got a slightly altered version ready to roll out, in preparation? Did it just wind up the Controversy Machine to get maximum benefit, totally aware that it could push its REAL iteration of Manhunt 2 out, coasting on a wave of near unprecedented infamy? Because in truth, even if a tamer edition was released, there would still be more people buying it than before the outcry, regardless of whether they feel ripped off (excuse the pun) by its lack of apparent brutality, after all this shouting.

If such is the case -and it's perhaps a bridge too far in both concept and as an accusation- it certainly didn’t account for the BBFC not wanting to see the game on any UK shelves, in spite of changed content. A new version of Manhunt 2 may save it in the U.S., but not for many PAL regions where the ban would likely just remain. Curiously enough, some online shops that supply their software from Jersey (such as Play and HMV) are still taking orders anyway, seeing as that region is outside the BBFC's reach, although it remains to be seen if this will continue – if Rockstar's appeal fails, it will still be illegal to supply to the U.K., with hefty fines and even jail time imposed on top of a customs crackdown (which would apply to ANY imports of Manhunt 2). With some other PAL territories likely to follow suit -Australia and Germany are more stringent than Britain at the best of times- it's a large sacrificial lamb that neutralises any extra sales the game could have garnered in the first place. As risk-to-reward tactics go, it's not exactly a practical one.

It's a bit too early to talk about the game disappearing altogether, however. Too much money has been thrown into Manhunt 2's development, and to scrap it would be a total waste that very few companies in the games industry can afford to take. Yet, is it truly as horrific as we're led to believe? Reports of it involving necrophilia and microwaving cats should be treated with a large pinch of salt at the moment, but there's no doubt the game is violent and probably powerful with it.

At the same time, respected British Nintendo magazine, NGamer, gave Manhunt 2 a score of 92% in its most recent issue, which would suggest there's a bit more to it than a mere blood and flesh grind. Despite all the controversy, the first game had a very potent sociological message that verged on satire; all but ignored by the moral majority who naturally never played it to the extent where that message became apparent. The Manhunt 2 website teaser was magnificently written, presented and staged, but belayed a keen sense of irony and made Nietzschean statements about the definition of monsters – something extremely relevant in today's political climate where 'nuclear', 'tyranny', 'oppression', 'liberation', 'terrorism' and 'Kim Jong II' are very much buzzwords of any government. Sure, it's no Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but there seems to be more to Manhunt II than first appearances.

It's easy to get caught up in the Wii motion control style peril of it all, too, which would be the next stage of outrage to follow. NGamer and IGN have described some very grisly multi-staged execution sequences, including genital evisceration, sawing and stabbings, performed with the relevant Wii remote motion. Expected -no less unpleasant- yet totally expected. But we were always heading down this route; if Manhunt 2 hadn't taken us there, another game would have eventually in this generation or the next. That's the nature of entertainment, and boundaries will be pushed in every form regardless of its interactivity. Taste, is another matter altogether, but that never stopped the age of 'video nasties', emerging in our culture. No medium is immune to freedom of expression, and nor should it be, even if you don't agree with it.

If you're wondering what this means for Wii 'adult' styled games, then you have little to worry about for now. Manhunt 2 was banned on the basis of its content, rather than the Wii remote controls, hence the reason why the PS2 version also took a fall. And while they would have had a factor in the game's approval process, it doesn’t seem like something that would be censored on its own. Content is king, and although there's a large question mark that remains over motion control generated violence, given the extremes Manhunt 2 appears to take I doubt we'll be fearing for Wii software on a whole; the Manhunt series is very much on its own when it comes to the stalker Running Man style gameplay, story-driven or no.

In fact, even the fallacious argument that adult designated titles (and third-party ones) don’t sell on Wii is coming under question given Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition is currently doing great guns in Japan and the U.S., reportedly selling out across many stores in the latter. A somewhat ironic point given all this hoo-haw, but a rather heartening one all the same, seeing as it manages to dispel this spurious myth that has emerged regarding Nintendo consoles.

But larger issues still linger over just how the public responds to videogame violence and adult themes; something that will not be resolved any time soon. While super gory movie sequel, Hostel II, gets a publicity blitz this month for its imminent release, it seems a little amusing that Manhunt 2 would find itself in this messy position at the same time. Of course, there's a large difference between the relatively passive nature of watching a film compared to the active pursuit of engaging in gameplay, but as it's been said many times that's what age certification rating are there for. Until they are properly enforced, there's an underlying hypocrisy that refuses to go away, underlined by the clear and erroneous perception that all videogames are for kids.

It's horrible to think that children (or indeed anyone) can be affected by such things, cliché facetiousness aside. But ultimately, interaction or no, it's content that creates the problems, less so the fact we can interact with it. And if that's the case, where does one form of content become safe while another is allowed to go by without equal measures? If we boil it down to the risk factor where we're asking ourselves "can we afford to take the chance of someone seeing [whatever] if it's a danger to society", then does it truly matter if we're playing, reading, watching or listening? Risk is risk, after all – and if we can save one person by removing a violent game, then surely we can also save more by stopping all violent films, music and books as well?

Just where do you exactly stop once you start down that slippery slope?

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Wii's 3rd-Party Line-up - When Are The Big Titles Coming?

Listen closely…

That slight rustling sound you can hear are The Winds of Change. They are on your internets… smacking you upside the head.

'Nu-E3' is coming. And while it's not the huge event that it used to be, it's still holds a fair degree of significance in the games industry; for this year especially, given the formative nature of all these new machines out. Once July 11th hits, three days of gaming expo importance will give you an indication of what you'll be playing in the next year or so.

However, what it will also do is give you some idea of the direction the industry will be heading in. And I imagine a few people will be surprised at what they see.

A handful of major publisher/developers had a couple 'revelations' -and I use that term with a strong hint of irony- this week which will have some bearing on Wii's future. The first came from Sega, which stated in U.K. magazine, 360Gamer (taken from Nikkei News), that it was going to shift its development focus away from Sony's platforms to Wii and DS. While PlayStation3 software will still be in the offering, Sega's stance now is that it will only develop titles for the format if it 'knows they will be hits'. Which is a fairly bizarre and circular argument given there's no guarantees in a title's success and great marketing can make even bad software sell, but that's the games industry for you. Namco Bandai and Capcom have also come out with similar statements of support for Wii and a change in their development focus. Slow on the uptake, but take in mind press releases are often written well after the fact.

Meanwhile, SquareEnix delivered the rather painful yet utterly unsurprising confirmation that there won't be a PS3 title from its banks to hit retail until April 2008 at the very earliest. Those waiting on Final Fantasy XIII to give the machine a much needed boost in Japan will unfortunately have to look towards another juggernaut to scratch that itch. With such a large title over a year away and Xbox 360 continuing to sink in the land of the rising sun, Nintendo's prospects for Wii just took a massive boost; that's even before the launch of new Dragon's Quest and Final Fantasy titles on the format (side quests or no, they'll sell through the roof).

There's still a question mark over third-party output for Wii in terms of big games, something you'll see answered a bit more come E3 and Tokyo Game Show this September, but it's been said before and it's worth saying again: third-parties were, like a majority of the gaming world, caught out with Wii's success. Some gamers have a false image of the industry running off an immediate cycle of development; a magical place where software is pushed out after mere months of conception. But most examples you see from Wii's launch to around late 2007 are a result of what developers thought would be merely to keep Nintendo quiet and earn a quick buck: half-hearted efforts even companies like Ubisoft admits to, despite blowing its support trumpet as early as mid-2006. Very few backed Nintendo to come out the gates as strong as it did. No wonder we've been getting ports and remakes, and some -not all, as doubters will have you believe- third-party sales are a little stunted. It's what those same companies are working on RIGHT NOW which is going to tell whether we'll see the best out of Wii and motion controlled games. Because what is in development now will be what we'll all be playing in 12 months time and beyond.

And that's going to be partly reflected in E3 next month, with TGS being all the more telling. Between the two events, a deluge of games are likely to be shown or at least announced as third-parties start backing what is clearly a strong competitor. I think it's revealing that in the peak of tennis season, with both the International Women's Open and Queen's Club Championships just ending, and Wimbledon being serving up on our TVs right now, that no third-party is pushing a Wii tennis game at this moment. The games industry tends to shy away from the annual event given its regularity and relative shortness, but come on now – Wii Tennis shows what can be done on a more basic scale, so even something similar could have been pushed out to capture audiences tired of the pack-in game. The genre doesn’t have a typically protracted development period, either. Not seeing one full tennis sim on Wii this summer (or indeed the last few months) tells you all you need to know about what was on the minds of many developers pre-launch; obviously not Wii. Yet a single game could have cleaned up the summer charts if someone had the guts and foresight to go for it. Instead they'll just have to watch Nintendo claim some of that nigh-captive audience with Wii Sports, no doubt earning another boost in hardware sales.

Third-parties are kicking themselves to the point where statements like the one Sega has just made are going to be more frequent. Hell, they already have been. Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Take Two and others have all come out in support of the machine in the past couple months, sheepishly admitting their foibles and error of judgment. SquareEnix already knew such a thing was on the cards having reaped the benefits of its DS (and Game Boy Advance) labours, which has seen massive profits for the company and somewhat puts to shame claims of third-parties not selling well on Nintendo systems.

It won't stop some of the same old excuses to be rolled out, though. Of course the competition is higher when you're competing with the likes of Mario and Zelda. This has always been the case. Yet the company's Draconian methods back in the days of the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 are mostly gone, and while a profitable third-party game on a Nintendo home machine may not be as chart happy as it would be on another format, it still carries clout – something evident in the often ignored facts that Ubisoft has two million seller titles on Wii, Atlus has its best selling game on the format, Majesco has record profits too via Nintendo's little wonder, and most third-party titles not only sell better on the system than on PS3, but also have larger gains (helped by lower development costs). All without a comparatively major effort coming from a third-party, as of yet.

Once these companies start noticeably pushing their resources and efforts into Wii development, then they should see results as long as what they provide is worth our money. The strong sales opening of Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition may go some way to showing publishers that a wide variety of game genres can sell, even as a remake/port, as long as the Wii remote implementation is good and the price is equally as accommodating for what's on offer.

I'm not saying we'll suddenly see Metal Gear 4 and a conversion of Final Fantasy XIII hitting Wii. Designated titles for the format are likely to be a mixture of those similar to what we've already seen, albeit less rushed or archaic, and the inevitable flush of exclusive titles will emerge to utilise of the motion controller. New franchises that may one day go on to be established names, as pressure increases to innovate and take advantage of a new and rapidly growing userbase willing to try new things.

And don’t worry – that doesn’t just mean more mini/non/wah-wah-there's-nothing-for-hardcore-users-games, either. Considering Wii's strategy is aping that of the DS, expect a similarly wide range of software to reflect the change in third-party thinking. But hey, guess what; because hardcore games are typically bigger than their more casual oriented brethren, they also take longer to create. And seeing as Wii is still selling like crazy, there's no real need to rush things. In fact, some companies may even want to wait a little longer to benefit from the increased audience, lessening the chances of their titles ending up as outright (and possibly unjust) duds.

In the meantime, you'll just have to be satisfied with 'oh-so-predictable' first and second-party fare like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros: Brawl, and whatever else appears. I know… painful, isn’t it?

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E3 2007 – Wii Predictions

Well, it's that time of year again.

As I write this, it's barely a few days before the annual E3 show which the gaming industry simultaneously loves, hates and fears. Long gone are the days where I'd have to stomp around a large, hot and noisy auditorium of veritable gaming Disneyland, so I won't be attending E3 2007, but as we all know the event is now merely a whisker of what it once was. This year signifies the launch of 'E3-lite', where the Media and Business Summit will only play host to 32 industry bigwigs rather than the 400-plus companies that attended in 2006.

That said, the July 11th-13th expo in Santa Monica will still have the likes of Capcom, Sega, LucasArts, Square Enix and many other important names rather than the liberal scattering we expected when E3 was first said to be downsized. And as such, while many will hold off their major announcements until the Tokyo Game Show (TGS) mid-September, there should still be plenty to talk about.

So here are my personal E3 predictions. These come with the usual provisos of salt pinching and lowered expectations, but also allow for what I've heard in the background noise of pre-show build-up. Rather than throw just anything out, I've only included predictions that are actually likely, rather than wildly unrealistic shouts of how we're all going to be blown away by Mario Kart Wii being playable (not going to happen).

Super Mario Galaxy will probably end up delayed
I'm getting this one out of the way early. It's not a popular presumption and will probably be met with cries of "but Nintendo has repeatedly said we'll play it this year!", but there are reasons why I've put this forward. Wii is doing exceptionally well sales-wise, despite the skewed perception of a 'software drought' in some circles. Obviously Christmas/Holiday 2007 is the big clash for Nintendo against Sony and Microsoft so it needs as much ammunition as possible to gain a moral and physical victory, but the question you have to ask is this: with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Super Smash Bros. Brawl both being pushed for the end of the year (the latter more so than the August-bound Metroid), does Nintendo truly need Super Mario Galaxy in 2007?

The three titles appeal to three different types of audience if we're talking on a specific level, but a big game is a big game, and Smash is still one of the biggest going for the company right now (the prequel outselling the Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube by a LARGE amount). Releasing both Brawl and Galaxy around the same time seems a little too much like self-defeating competition when Wii is already doing so well and likely to continue so for the remaining months. And given the large amount of weekday information provided about the beat 'em up, it's fairly clear Brawl is a long way into development, while we've barely seen anything of Galaxy in the run-up to E3, even by Nintendo's secretive standards.

Add into the equation that many thought Sunshine was rushed and suffered accordingly; it's quite likely Galaxy will see a similar delay process that Twilight Princess had to make sure it was as good as it could be. Wii already has its big Holiday game in Brawl, but also quite possibly another in one of its more casual oriented titles too – I expect Galaxy to be pushed over into 2008 (spring?) for extra development sheen that Nintendo can fully afford, it's just a matter of whether it's announced at E3 or later in the year. And it's not exactly if Nintendo hasn’t gone back on its promises before *cough*Mario, Smash and Metroid for 'launch window'"*cough.

Disaster: Day of Crisis delayed into 2008
Another casualty, but far more predictable, this promising looking action-adventure has been missing for a while now. I don’t imagine it's been cancelled (although sadly, it's looking like the same can't be said for Project H.A.M.M.E.R.), but as with Mario Galaxy, D:DoC isn’t a major requirement to see out 2007 when it would be much better served for next year. With the genre starting to get more presence on the console this decision would make sense on more than a few levels, especially if the extra time can allow it to live up to its clear potential.

Third-parties will start their Wii 'change of heart' support
Expect many third-parties to start having battles of erm, 'Wii envy' and fighting for the biggest software line-up for 2008 and beyond. Other publishers who were previously sitting on the fence will also find themselves leaping off onto freshly white and glowing blue pastures. One thing not to expect is a vast amount of these games to be shown there and then. Many third-party projects have only started to be conceptualised from a few months ago at the very earliest, so it's likely we'll see a deluge of announcements but few new playable/trailer designated stuff until later this year. Such is the price to pay when you hop on late to the gravy train. At least a few more exclusives will show their faces, however.

Dragon Quest Swords and Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles will impress people more than they expected
Both of these titles have been disparaged for their more 'on-rails' nature, but reports have generally been positive and encouraging, not to mention being among the better looking out there right now. Square Enix and Capcom have a moderate amount of work to prove they're truly with Wii, so all eyes will be on these examples -somewhat unfairly, perhaps- as harbingers of the future… especially where Capcom is concerned.

That said, Umbrella Chronicles is gathering some buzz after a two-player mode was confirmed, which will no doubt add a decent amount of longevity and appeal, and recent scans in Famitsu have shown more diverse environments and potentially cleaner textures. One to watch, that's for certain.

Electronic Arts will come off with some of the most positive impressions the company has garnered from the event in a while
The surprise third-party to emerge from Wii's rise into mainstream heaven, EA's output has certainly shocked many in terms of range and quality. It may not be hitting 100% (few companies do), but it's very much an unlikely 'success story' that will be built on as the developer/publisher learns from mistakes made in the first batch of Wii software and does what it does best – expanding and polishing already competent game engines. With some kinks worked out for their next iterations, I imagine the likes of Madden, Tiger Woods et all will start hitting the higher echelons of review scores from late this year onward, while others like Boogie capture the mass market's imagination regardless of whether they're good or not. EA should stroll E3 2007, via Wii.

DVD Channel for Wii continues the multimedia push
After Nintendo has repeatedly told us functions that take us away from gaming aren't that important, I'm looking slightly sideways at it changing its stance a little, as the inevitable DVD Channel is unleashed for a 'nominal' (read: eye rolling) fee of Wii Points (at best only first-comers will get it free, similar to the Internet Channel set-up). It's been mooted Wii's architecture could manage this merely via a software update rather than the earlier mooted 'DVD dongle', which solves any distribution problems, but if true it's probably too much to expect a free version per se. The only thing stopping this is Nintendo looking to go even further with its video playback options. Hmm.

Sega's games will pick-up a typically mixed reception
Poor Sega can't seem to catch a break, proving true the old adage 'damned if you do, damned if you don't'. Expect this E3 to be no different, with the stakes high for NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. As usual, Sega's inconsistency will probably garner mixed accounts at the event this month, with NiGHTS probably not living up to impossible expectations. The bedlam of E3's atmosphere, as diluted as it will be this time around, won't help. But either way it's hard to expect accurate representations of Sega's titles here, for good or bad.

Ubisoft to officially announce Red Steel 2
One of the industry's worst kept 'secrets'. Ubisoft has denied the first-person shooter sequel despite advertising development related positions for it some while back. E3 is the best place to make things fully formal, with a release date probably pencilled in for spring 2008. Online play is being hinted at, and given the basics of the game were fine and development well on the way, assets and code libraries will possibly be reused to aid a quick, but not rushed (this time) launch. The next eight months are going to be amazing for first-person titles no matter which system you own, and you can bet an effort will be made to have Red Steel 2 take advantage of that.

Or alternatively, Ubisoft could just take its time and aim for a more perfected late 2008 launch instead. But that would seem uncharacteristic.

A big casual-designated title will be shown by Nintendo and given a release date
I am, of course, referring to Wii Music and Health Pack, one (or both?) of which should be ready in time for the big Christmas/Holiday push (hence making a possible Mario Galaxy delay more palatable to Nintendo). Software of this type is a proven big seller, and if something like Health Pack is marketed to help 'shed those Christmas pud pounds', you can expect it to steamroll any other titles in the charts for a long while. A tag-team of Wii Music around October/December and Health Pack for November/January? Sounds like a winner.

At least two big Nintendo mainstay franchises will be announced, but barely shown
Animal Crossing and Mario Kart are currently the most likely suspects, with possible rumblings of Mario Tennis Wii, although it may be too early to step off the Wii Tennis court as of yet. The big thing here is that the Kyoto based company has so many franchises to pick from; it could live off any number of them for years yet. Pikmin? Luigi's Mansion 2? Mario Golf? And so on. So this is very much a roulette wheel, but whatever we get it may be a bit too early to show much, if anything at all, with TGS being a more viable and visible stage.

Zelda? Hahahahahahahahaaaaaa. No.

Not this time, anyway...

WiiWare titles announced, but not really displayed (closed doors invites?)
It was with great cheer that Nintendo finally put us out of our misery when it announced we'd be getting a dedicated downloadable content channel in WiiWare, matched only by the subsequent groan that we'd not see any software from the service until early 2008. The reasons behind such a delay could be due to Nintendo wanting to make sure the service rolls out with a full compliment of titles and functions -a nice change from the rather half-hearted approach the big N is often noted for when it comes to stuff like this- but it could also be due to another Channel being on the verge of arrival. Which is interesting in itself. But in the meantime it's likely we'll get a stronger idea of more mainstream developer plans for the service, if not much in the way of hands-on impressions as smaller titles tend to get lost in the boom and bluster of affairs like E3.

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Short Games, Mini-Games – Who's To Blame?

A lot has been made of games being shorter and increasingly 'casual'.

Along with some of the more narrow-minded arguments where Wii's success will apparently bring the 'downfall of our fair industry as we know it', one of the cornerstones of this laboured misconception is that gaming will lose its hardcore dominance, software will degenerate into mini/non-games and the market will no longer sustain the sort of titles many of us grew up on.

Of course, it's all a load of decaying animal faeces.

Wii isn’t going to create a gaming apocalypse, there will be a mixture of all game types on the system, and casual/non-gamers have long been an influential part of videogames in one form or another. More so now because the audience is larger and more diverse than it's ever been, and the medium has evolved massively over the space of its three decade-plus lifespan. But as they say, 'the more things change, the more things stay the same'.

However, one thing that has become increasingly apparent is that we're looking in the wrong places to attribute culpability when it comes to the growing number of shorter, 'small' games. We blame casuals, non-gamers and Nintendo via Wii for supposedly pandering to them.

But we're burning the wrong witch.

If you're looking for someone to blame, don’t point a finger at them. Instead, invert that twitchy little RSI fated digit to yourself and you'll find the culprit.

Because we're all to blame. Every single one of us.

We've always consumed products faster than it takes to create, no matter if it's food, music, film, games or whatever. That's just the nature of things. But the dawn of the digital age, internet and all, seems to have amplified this substantially, making us less willing to digest and savour what we've just watched, read or experienced. We want to get to the point and fast. We ask people -regardless of whether they're friends or strangers- to tell us why a piece of entertainment is worth our time and money, because both concepts are so valuable to us, and then when we get it, all we want to do is progress to the end as quickly as possible… or at least have someone let us know it's worth it.

We live in a time where spoilers are totally prevalent and movie trailers give away all but the whole film, if not a few of its twists, just to get audiences to pay attention. Where we delight on getting 'first post' even if we have nothing to say, just to be, well, first. Where anything which takes longer than a few minutes to read can often get shunned (after all, are you REALLY reading this, or are you merely skimming for the essentials?) and extended features within the print medium are a dying breed over snappy sound-bites and pictures.

We want to know what happens in our entertainment without experiencing the effort taken to reward it, and so it becomes a little like having nothing but sweets for breakfast, lunch and dinner; they taste great at first but there's no substance to them. And so the craft rots away like our teeth would after meals of nothing but chocolate and candy. No essence, no challenge.

And they exist because there's a market for them. We've made it that way.

Is there any wonder why many developers want to stick to shorter games when our attention span is so fleeting? After all, why spend thousands of dollars and several years making something that lasts over 50 hours when we're all just going to complain that the beginning is too slow, how we want to get to the end quicker (both things I've often heard levelled at Twilight Princess), that we can't be arsed, and how other games demand our attention?

Why are we in such damn a rush?

All these mini-games and such are a reflection of a changing society, where speed is of the essence. The handheld market is bigger than ever, because playing games in the gaps of doing other stuff is an easy way of getting a quick fix. We're too busy to play at home, and when we're not at home we're at work/school/whatever, but a 30 minute stint on the bus or train? Perfect.

We've been pandering to this sensibility for years as the range of distractions grow in the shape of new media, with new ways to take up our free time. How many of us have unopened DVDs? Games that we've been waiting years for, only to remain unfinished along with the rest of the shelf-bound titles that we keep promising to get back to? CDs where we don’t even wait until the end of a certain track before skipping to the next one, made all the more notable because we can't even remember the track titles anyway? I'm certainly just as guilty as anyone of committing these bad habits.

The games industry is one of the fastest growing within entertainment right now. But it's also becoming hugely expensive. As budgets increase, so do the risks – and many developers live in fear that the game they've spent a moderate portion of their lives dedicated to will end up on the 'bomba' pile all too quickly. Whether it's because we, as an audience, are giving it a decent chance or not is academic. But this is why shorter, more casual games are so attractive to those who make them.

It's true that while big established names and sequels always have a chance in this progressively more throwaway market, new intellectual properties and brave ventures take a leap of faith where there's a greater likelihood of them disappearing without a trace (Beyond Good & Evil) than getting a much needed lifeline in order to start a fresh and successful franchise (God of War). And even then there's a possibility we'll just complain that our beloved sequel is too long, too tired and too familiar for our ever-changing tastes.

This isn’t to say it's an excuse for poor software. Nor is it to say Wii will be flooded with smaller, quicker games. It's no secret that some of the higher rated Wii titles are also among the longest (Zelda, The Godfather and Resident Evil 4). But supply must meet demand; it's simple business. And right now, the demand across all territories is for the games we hardcore so often frown upon. We're a vocal minority, but when it comes down to it, no matter how loud we shout, that 'minority' part speaks far louder. The silent majority lets the chart sales speak for them.

Nintendo was essentially smarter than any other company because it saw this happening and aimed to fill the gap as quickly as possible – and if the big N hadn’t, someone else would have, because companies like Yahoo! Games and Miniclip were already tapping this expanding and difficult to ignore demand. Wii (and DS) offer what our society currently craves, crafting the art of not only the 'throwaway' game, but also more nostalgia-tinged software which manages depth beyond the simplicity it belays – as was the case with many titles during the medium's formative years.

However, just because a game is short by typical standards, doesn’t mean it has no longevity. The ability to create titles that allow us to dabble without long term commitment but have a distant goal, is a valuable one, marking a more careful transition from lengthy gameplay to something more transitory. Titles like WarioWare and Wii Sports provide this in varying degrees, and have that indispensable crossover appeal that draws in people from all demographics. The psychological factor cannot be underestimated for these types of games – we're aware we can be entertained in small doses, but we're rewarded for MAKING time to delve deeper. It's this intangible and tricky element that holds the key to satisfying both casuals and hardcore gamers, allowing us to get plenty from our games without feeling guilty should we abandon them for newer ones barely a month later. Which we inevitably will, given the large array of choice on offer.

But the transition isn’t going to be fast -ironically- and as we can see at the moment, development teams will initially struggle to get that balance, which will do no favours to anyone wrongly equating 'short' and 'mini' with 'bad'. Yet gaming is a business, and if it doesn’t follow market trends and what it thinks the audience wants, then it will die a slow and painful death. What you're seeing is merely a reflection of what publishers need to survive in this cut-throat and fast moving attention-seeking world.

But don’t confuse Wii for being the cause when it's merely a symptom of something we've all had a hand in… regardless of whether we like the results or not.

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