Rare engagement and Kinect Sports

I was lucky enough to be invited along to an event held by games developer Rare, to play Kinect Sports (aff link), which has been developed for the new Kinect peripheral for the Xbox. I’ll write more about the game itself at the end, but a few other things struck me about the event.

Number one, it was the first event I’ve been to without any corporate affiliation for as long as I can remember. Even when not directly related, I’ve always been able to reference my employer during introductions, etc. This time I was purely there as a fan and independent freelance something or other, which was a little strange but also nice. It also meant that I hopefully spent more time listening and asking questions.

Number two – the event itself, #kinectsportsday, was really interesting as previously Rare had a reputation for keeping itself to itself since it began, 25 years ago. And the location of the offices backs that up – out in the countryside, hidden away behind a gatehouse and winding driveway.

But this event had been created purely to let people from ‘smaller’ sites and forums, competition winners, and fans, all get a chance to not only play the game before the next chance the mainstream press will get, but also to speak to the designers and developers all day long. There were probably 40-50 guests in attendance, and probably around 10 Rare employees, which meant an awesome amount of time to chat with the people that made the various elements of the game. And there were no limits of what you could ask etc.

It was a really nice piece of engagement – not only allowing people more access than they’d ordinarily have, but also building relationships with fans and sites which will either continue to have a strong following for Rare, or could end up being the next big thing.

Put simply, I spend a lot of time telling people how great it would be to open up to your fans and consumers – engage with them, give them access, chat and talk with them etc. And Rare let me feel exactly how great it is to be on the receiving end of that as someone who actually started playing their games 25 years ago.

Kinect Sports Day at Rare

For more pics, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/badgergravling/sets/72157625177210894/

Kinect Sports and Kinect:

So for those interested in gaming as much as marketing/engagement and my own identity crisis…

I think I’m finally converted to motion games – as fun gaming,rather than a distraction during parties. And I think the main reason for that is that the Kinect doesn’t make you hold a device to track/input motion – which means that when you become immersed in a game, it seems easier for my brain to fill in the gaps and make it feel more realistic. I’d definitely say for this type of sports game, I’d pick the Kinect version over the Wii version any day.

And part of that is down to the fact Kinect Sports is really nicely done. A total of six disciplines (Football, Bowling, Track & Field, Table Tennis, Boxing and Beach Volleyball) all contain normal versions of the sports (with single player, versus and co-operative modes), and minigame variations, which tend to be fun and frenetic.

There didn’t seem to be any lag in detecting movements and translating them on screen, graphically it looked pretty good (certainly above what would be required), and they’ve licensed enough suitable music and injected enough humour that I’d actually be tempted to play this in single player, which doesn’t happen often with party-orientated games.

I’ll write a more lengthy post concentrating on the gaming side of things for www.onlineracedriver.com now, but I think games like this are going to bridge the gap even more between games who actually own and play games, and those with a more casual interest/non-gamers as part of the overall convergence of entertainment devices. It’ll be interested to see how they continue to promote it versus the ‘celebs at home’ approach of Nintendo at the moment, as I think the Xbox platform has a lot more potential to crossover now as a media device/console/party game machine.

The social ages of videogames

I’ve been thinking about the concepts of game theory, play, and videogames for a while now – and they’re a lot more prominent in my thoughts considering the recent coverage of the success and controversy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Coincidentally, there seems to have been a rise in discussions about whether videogames and social networks are turning our youth into antisocial loners sat in dark rooms, existing on caffeinated drinks and sugar, and basically living up to the outdated stereotype peddled out every so often by media and politicians too old to bother actually spending some time experiencing this world for themselves (Obviously I’m generalising, and the fact most 30-40 year olds have grown up with computer and video games means coverage gets more balanced every year).

I started to think about my own 27 year+ love affair with videogames (Writing that made me feel shockingly old all of a sudden – I started young!)

My own introduction to videogames was via a family friend who had a 48k Spectrum – I have memories of sitting around chatting and playing various games, before investing my time gently persuading my parents I had to have one.

And from there, my gaming really splits into 4 distinct periods:

  • Going to a friends house to play console games (This was the era of the Megadrive and the SNES, when 4 or 5 of us would meet after school and hangout whilst playing games for lengthy periods)
  • Going to a friends house to hook up PCs for primitive LAN parties. (In the era of the 486, networked gaming meant a kitchen table creaking under the weight of prehistoric desktops and enough cabling to connect a small village)
  • Having friends come round at university to play videogames (Having first invested in a Sega Saturn, I’d realised I should invest part of my student loan in a Sony Playstation. A better longterm investment than my donations to the Student Union bar).
  • Hanging out with friends via Xbox Live now work and family mean I can’t visit/go to the pub etc as much as I’d like. (I’d dropped out of gaming until the Xbox, but being able to play online quickly, easily and without a PC was too much to resist – and since then almost all of my friends have succumbed)

Of course I also spent time playing single-player games when no-one else was around, but the idea of playing in a total social vacuum seems to me to be a myth – why else would you conquer a game or a high score table if not to share that triumph?

And during this period I played sports a lot (school teams, inter-mural teams at university and becoming a bit of a gym addict), played music, read a fair amount, had girlfriends, drank beer, went clubbing etc. All the things you associate with a well-rounded social teenager and adult.

The only real difference was that rather than hanging out listening to music, or watching films etc when we hung out at home, much of the time was spent sat chatting and issuing instructions, suggestions, commentary and insults towards whoever was in control of the console/computer at the time. And once I’d become addicted to the Xbox I became friends with work colleagues and other local gamers who I then met in the physical world to either play games, sink a few pints, or even work on ideas like the sadly dormant at the moment Disposable Media. Some of that gaming experience and the friendships I’d made also led to my first work experience in the media, and indeed my first paid freelance work published in a national magazine.

Obviously a sample size of one isn’t going to give much insight into gaming as a whole, but I figured that amongst all the other dangers of video-gaming, a career in the media industry hadn’t been highlighted yet!

Enough self-indulgent biography – I’m off to play some Forza Motorsport – which has more than enough community and social aspects to warrant a more analytical blog post of it’s own later in the week…

The Xbox could rule the living room with bundled internet access

Since I questioned Microsoft’s change in marketing strategy for the Xbox, I’ve been thinking about positive suggestions for boosting the market share of the Xbox 360. And I think I’ve got a good one, although it might be bit odd – as always I’m hoping your comments will aid my thinking.

The idea came to me as:

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is a major attempt to ‘own the living room’ with a device which converges gaming (especially online gaming), videos, and other entertainement and community building.

Xbox Controller by A_Hermida on Flickr (CC Licence)

Xbox Controller by A_Hermida on Flickr (CC Licence)

The Xbox Live service is a major selling point for the Xbox.

Videos on Demand were one step towards convergence.

Then integrating with Netflix was the next step to boost the pretty measly catalogue of videos on demand. (Sadly still unavailable in the UK).

US broadband suppliers are starting to limit data. Meanwhile in the UK, far lower limits are normal. In fact, one major reason for my decision to go with Zen Broadband was that they offered a decent data limit for 2-8Mb connections, unlike most other ISPs (It’s the maximum speed I can get in my area). But even with a 20GB limit, I’m getting closer and closer to hitting the data limit every month, as more and more of my media usage is online.

So why doesn’t Microsoft bundle internet access with the Xbox 360/Xbox Live accounts?

There may be issues around conflicts of interest etc, but if Microsoft wants to own the living room, particularly outside the U.S, then perhaps becoming an ISP, or partnering with an existing supplier might be the best move they could ever make.

1. If they offered the highest data limits in the market, they’d give an added incentive for families to pick the Xbox.

2. Increased data limits would encourage the download/renting of full films online – as it is, a handful of films would mean no more internet for a month for me.

3. They could ensure maximum compatability, and also work to reduce issues with lag and connections. There are still many issues with online gaming, especially given the speed differences between U.S and U.K for example.

4. They’d be in a position to stimulate broadband improvements, and drive down prices by subsidising the costs with the increase in revenue from an uptake in sales, Live Accounts, and VoD. Plus it may stimulate more innovation in the services being offered. And they’d also be able to benefit from offering services from the entire Microsoft business to families which are likely to have other internet-enabled devices alongside their Xbox.

5. It gives an added incentive for people currently using/considering a PC as a media centre to use the Xbox instead.

It seems to make sense, but in my enthusiasm I may have missed some reasons why this would be difficult/impossible – so please do help improve my thinking through the comments.  Maybe we’ll end up with better broadband because of it!

The end of the VCR generation

Don’t worry, I haven’t slipped back 10 years to the launch of the DVD.

I’m just thinking about the speed of change in technology and business – inspired by an incredibly depressing trip to my local Blockbuster rental store on Saturday.

Two rows of rentals, a few racks of bargain-priced pre-owned DVDs and games and a few new releases for sale.

And while I’m a huge advocate of making content downloadable online, and services which mail DVDs to your door (like Blockbuster, Lovefilm and Netflix), so that you can forage in the Long Tail, I couldn’t help feeling sad at how the rental store has declined.

It’s probably showing my age, but I remember a time before Blockbuster showed up. The first local video store was a real ‘mom and pop’ type shop, and had a tiny selection, but for a young film fan whose family had just got their first video recorder, it was amazing.

Then I experienced Blockbusters. So many films under one roof that my first trip was almost accompanied by the kind of golden glow you’d see in TV adverts as I wandered down every row, checking out every possible title vying for my attention (Something I’ve never quite kicked, which is why I tend to get left to browse in record shops, video stores and computer games emporiums – few friends and family members have to make sure that they’ve checked every possible option for entertainment).

Sadly, the decline has been noticeable for a while, probably demonstrated by the fact I hadn’t paid a visit to my local store in at least a year.

I’ve got films on Freeview (whoever first put adverts in the middle of films and live sporting events should be shot, by the way), I’ve got films on demand via my Xbox 360, and I’ve been a happy subscriber to Lovefilm. And that’s despite UK broadband speed and data limits meaning I’ve been a latecomer to downloading films via PC or Xbox (TV via iPlayer is another matter!).

I’m not saying that DVD rental shops should be saved for any reason – the only possible solution I could envisage keeping them going for a while would be a Print-on-Demand service to burn a DVD of any catalogued film for those who don’t yet have the bandwith – but that’s a stopgap on the way to extinction.

It’s just rare sometimes to hear anyone advocating a digital revolution/evolution admit that they might feel bad about the end of a dying medium, and without a rational explanation!

When everyone is virtual, it will be in Grand Theft Auto – not Second Life

Second Life Avatar by tifotter

Having played quite a few hours of Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest game in the series, I’ve become convinced that future evolutions of the game are far more likely to bring virtual worlds to the masses than Second Life ever will.

I’ve experienced the whole GTA series, including the original 2D games for the Playstation, the original switch to 3D, and the gradual expansion of the gaming universe and variety of missions, side missions, and alternative exploits (Why is it the press always focuses on the hookers, rather than the fact you can play darts, pool, or go bowling?). And now there’s a range of really enjoyable multi-player missions.

It’s a consistent world, with rules loosely based on those of reality – but bent for more fun. All it takes is a mechanism for an ongoing economy, and suddenly it’s a virtual world.

Second Life, by contrast, has the barrier of requiring a reasonable PC, a sign-up procedure, and learning how the world works…as opposed to ‘insert cd and play’.

This might be a risky prediction, but some figures do back it up. March 2008 saw 13 million Second Life accounts registered with no idea of how many were active.

By contrast, GTA IV sold 3.6 million copies on the first day of release, and 6 million in the first week. The previous instalment, GTA:San Andreas hit 21.5 million units in total. (Figures from wikipedia.org)

And with copies of the game costing around £40, people are definitely going to play it until they get their money’s worth. It already became the most played game on Xbox Live for the week of it’s release.

It’s got the fans, the brand reputation, and mainstream appeal on consoles which offer easy online access alongside home entertainment. And I know I’m not the only person who bought his copy on the day of release – and without reading a single review.

If GTA hasn’t become a persistent virtual world within the next couple of years, I’ll eat my copy of GTA IV!

The catching up begins now!

I’m back, running at about 30% normal output! New child, no sleep, and the release of Grand Theft Auto 4 have all conspired to keep me away from the laptop and my normal RSS/Twitter addiction – but it’s slowly coming back!

I’m amazed at how many great things have appeared in the RSS feed in the last 10 days or so – and at the massive backlog if I wanted to read it all. Add in anything I’ve missed and will have to forego on Twitter, and countless other things, and it’s amazing how quickly a mountain of knowledge, information and chatter builds up!

Still, I’m going to have plenty of time in the early hours to catch up, with baby Oscar in one arm, and the mouse in the other…

Incidentally, GTA IV is as addictive as the previous versions (Although the shinier graphics do mean it’s a little disappointing that there isn’t as much variation in scenery as in GTA: San Andreas…). One interesting item is the use of a mobile phone which can be brought up on screen as needed with one button press…maybe it’s worth setting any desktop apps to run in the same fashion? And would these mean I could justify a customisable keyboard?

An example of the power of Twitter…

Before I went offline last night, I made an off-the-cuff remark on Twitter about how I’d really like to be able to incorporate my activities and social life on Microsoft’s Xbox Live into the rest of my digital social life.

Sites like Friendfeed might allow Twitter, Flickr, and anything else with an ‘r’ on the end, but I haven’t seen anyone tie in Xbox Live yet.

I log in today, check my replies, and the first one I see is from Engtech. And it’s a hugely comprehensive guide to how to effectively RSS your XBox Live info, quoting me!

Find out how to integrate and RSS your XBox Live information, here.

A market crying out to engage your brand?

Last weekend my willpower collapsed and I bought Xbox 360 blockbuster Halo 3. I’d tried to resist, but when 31 friends are online, and 30 are playing one game, it’s near impossible to hold out.

On Sunday evening, over 900,000 players were online, and numbers have topped 1 million. That’s people online at any one time, and people that have paid not only for the game (Up to around £49.99 for the limited edition version), but have also most likely spent out on buying an Xbox Gold subscription for 12 months of online gaming.

Now imagine if your brand or publication had access to a code to make the main character in Halo3 run faster, take more damage, or even a special character design?

Think the chap that has paid £40 to get a game on release, rather than waiting for a discount, would find it easy to resist? Especially with the peer pressure of 30 of his friends waiting to be impressed by his new skills?

And whatever the brands, there’s a likely game to tie in. Whether it’s a racing game, an adventure game, a sci-fi shooter, or something oddball and cute like Viva Pinata.

The most powerful networks…

It’s easy to debate who are the biggest players in social networking, whether you’re a Myspace fan, Facebook obsessive, or quoting the Latin, Asian, Indian or Brazilian audience of Hi5 or Orkut. (Incidentally, I signed up for Orkut today, completing my membership of the big four and I have to say, it feels a bit unfinished…seems like it’s all back end, no front end.)

But there’s one social network which could be more influential, if not pervasive. There are times when I take it for granted, but Xbox Live is truly one of the great networks of our time.

With the box next to my TV, I can play games on and offline, and watch DVDs. I can also download demos of games, new content for existing games, and complete smaller arcade games, including the likes of Sonic The Hedgehog and old arcade games.

When payment is required, it’s a one button confirmation, billed to my credit card with pre-paid points.

And the same points can be used to purchase downloadable videos etc, with pay-per-view films coming to the UK soon.

If I’m playing a different game to my friends, one button brings up a list to message them, or invite them into private voice chat, whilst I can continue to play. And I can compare the achievements of all my games, to those of my friends

And I can listen to custom soundtracks from CD’s, or my portable hard drive, at the same time as doing all of this.

15 years ago (Making me feel old), this would have seemed about as likely as jetcars, as I carried my 486 to someone’s house for a LAN party using ethernet cards, lots of shouting, and eventually some four player Doom.

And how many hours have I put in? I know there are at least two games which have claimed my time of at least 50 days each…And another 15 or so games on my played list.

I know the service is a walled garden, with a small window looking out at Windows Live Messenger, and a skylight from which a feed can escape to sites displaying gamertags, and even blogs written by Xbox 360s. But, like Facebook, it’s so comfortable, that trying to escape is like trying to rouse yourself from a comfy armchair after a Sunday roast dinner.

The best widget on the internet

If you’re wondering what the best widget you can use is, then I’ve found it. And surprisingly, despite the fact my taste in blogs and websites is fairly liberal, it’s not being used very much, meaning you can become a trendsetter by copying and pasting.

It’s not a zombie bite in Facebook, it won’t display your latest Twitter update, it doesn’t show yur Xbox 360 gamertag or make Myspace actually worth using…

It simply shows a fragment of a text for which someone in the world has been imprisoned or punished, to try and stop censorship on the internet.

It’s from Amnesty International and can be found at http://irrepressible.info/addcontent.

And I’m amazed at the amount of people who blathered on about the restrictions of the Bloggers Code of Conduct, or could threaten Kathy Sierra etc, but won’t do something as simple as publishing a widget on their blog…

If you are reading this and feel inspired to include the Amnesty International widget, or you’ve already plugged it in, do let me know. At the very least it’ll restore my faith in part of humanity…