(Note: this entry was edited one day after the original post in the interest of being more fair. My initial reaction was one of shock at the stark differences between the PS3 and XBox 360 interfaces, and while my opinions haven't changed, the choice of expression has been moderated by having some time to digest those differences.)
So instead, we're going to talk about my first experience with the PS3 last night.
I cannot speak to the games yet. I only had about a half hour with Killzone 2 and while it has an aesthetic to the graphics that I instantly recognized as PlayStation from my PS2 days, they weren't markedly different from anything I'd seen on the XBox 360. Most graphics comparisons between the two systems I have seen have ultimately concluded that there is no real superiority of either system in terms of graphics or sound, and less so over time.
I therefore expect the games I purchase, the top-shelf titles, to all be excellent and I'm not concerned about it. If I had any doubt about this, I never would have bought the PS3. Last night was mostly about messing with the hardware, and learning the interface and exploring the online service.
Things I immediately liked about the PS3: it has wireless internet. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that this is built into the system. I had to run a cable to my XBox 360, and when the cable shat the bed and I kept getting drops it was not fun to run a new cable.
The PS3 controller is rechargable by default, and hooks up to the console with a simple USB cable and charges while the console is on. No extra batteries to purchase. I also appreciate this. It has motion control capabilities, so we'll see how that works out. It will take me a while to readjust to the PlayStation-style controllers but it will come, like riding a bicycle. I used to be a PS2 gamer. The muscles remember.
Now we know why Activision fired Jason West and Vince Zampella. I've been saying all along that it seemed too strange for Activision to fire the producers of their biggest product EVER under such questionable circumstances.
They did it because this deal with Bungie was coming, and they knew the news would wipe the IW bullcrap right off the radar. What do they care if they lose Modern Warfare at this point? They still have a guaranteed moneymaker in Call of Duty, they got rid of the two troublemakers (from their perspective) who fought them on the idea of producing both Call of Duty 2 and Modern Warfare 2, and now they just hooked up with a studio who is much larger in gamer culture than Infinity Ward, and who people have been dying to see go cross-platform.
"Jason and Vince who? We got Bungie."
It was billed as a "live-action short." We've had those before, for Halo 3...
...and for Halo: ODST...
...and we were supposed to have one for the upcoming Halo:Reach.
Instead, we get this:
WHAT a disappointment. "Landfall" and "We are ODST" both have some genuine emotional resonance to them. "Birth of a Spartan" is utterly devoid of the stuff. I could care less who that kid is on the table having yellow and blue Kool-Aid injected into his veins.
As a Boston-based writer, I've been looking at the big-name Massachusetts developers where I could make personal connections. Turbine, Harmonix, and Irrational Games are all AAA studios within arms' reach. 38 Studios hasn't produced a game yet, but they're also a noteworthy local presence. They are working with Todd McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore on an MMO, which piques my interest immediately, but it's another fantasy MMO.
I don't mean to discount the potential quality of the product by saying so...but it's another fantasy MMO. If we head to MMORPG Lair, scrub out the smaller games, combine expansions into a unified title, consider comic-book games as "science-fiction," and include Tabula Rasa (which never made it out of the gate) and The Matrix online (which is now offline), we still come up with a 2:1 ratio in favor of fantasy-based games.
The MMO genre lends itself more readily to fantasy because it is easier to replicate a "fantasy world experience" than a "science fiction experience" for one simple reason: space. Not the "outer" variety, just plain old space, as in room.
A staple of sci-fi is the ability to jaunt around the galaxy going to lots of different planets and places. Most sci-fi MMOs I've played other than EVE have felt decidedly cramped. Star Wars Galaxies only had eight or nine that players could actually travel to. Star Trek Online only has a few starbases one can go to, and all the other planets are for quick, instance-based encounters. I'm not sure if Anarchy Online had interplanetary travel whatsoever. Even The Old Republic has only had news about a handful of planets, and we have no idea how large those areas are going to be.
A good sci-fi MMO should have at least 30 or more planets to explore at launch, with 10 or more planets added every couple of months. Let me acknowledge the probability that this represents a preposterous amount of design and programming effort to make all those environments unique, and to populate them with NPCs and quest content.
EVE Online is successful because you never get out of your ship. Creating new space, much of which is necessarily empty, to explore is therefore a sustainable effort.
Kudos where they are due: Blizzard dominates the genre with WoW because they boiled down all the prior MMO mechanics into a smooth, solid system, and in doing so set the standard. What happens when you take a sci-fi MMO and remove one of the quintessential aspects of science fiction? It feels like a sci-fi skin thrown over WoW...so people just go back to WoW for the same experience but in a more polished form, and with lots of people to play with. Even the early screens and gameplay videos of The Old Republic feel like WoW to me hence, perhaps, the recent video from Bioware about how "active" the combat is in TOR?
The other issue with a sci-fi MMO is that in most science fiction worlds, combat is ranged. Dune set itself apart by making energy weapon/shield interaction a MAD scenario, but for most sci-fi: see that guy over there hiding behind a crate? Set your phaser to "Maximum death" and then just make a crater out of the whole area.
Doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me, neither...so sci-fi MMOs often have combat systems that feel artificial, imposing classic MMO combat elements like buffs and de-buffs (see: Magic), or melee combat, where they just don't really fit. I suppose I can make an exception for Klingons in STO, that's pretty canonical...but the Teras Kasi masters in Star Wars Galaxies always made me groan. Can someone get Bruce Lee out of the way so that I can hose down that group of Imperial stormtroopers with my blaster rifle, please?
The reason why I have hope for The Old Republic to establish itself as the first, successful, ground-based sci-fi MMO is twofold, however factors bear a substantial risk: a focus on story, and the strength of the franchise. No one has yet made an MMO that really had a driving narrative, and if anyone can pull it off it's Bioware - but my concern is that if everyone is more interested in their personal tale than the meta affairs of the game world, or if partnership is a matter of temporary convenience to get past a combat-oriented task to advance the storyline, where does the "MM" part of the acronym come in? I want to hear about raids, and PvP, as this is where the "multiplayer" shines.
The Star Wars franchise can be a crutch as well as a strength. Star Wars Galaxies was seduced by the dark side of the gameplay, and in doing so destroyed itself. Yet another topic that Bioware speaks to in the gameplay video, and for good reason, but we don't need to even touch SWG to establish the horrid history of cheap franchise tie-ins. Hell, the prequel trilogy is a cheap franchise tie-in.
I'm not looking for a sci-fi WoW killer, or even a sci-fi MMO that properly competes with WoW. I have yet to see anything to give me pause in my assessment that WoW is the pinnacle of MMORPG development. Popularity with these kind of legs must speak to solid engineering. I just want a little diversity in the MMO genre, and the science fiction theme is probably the best place to find it.
The dominance of WoW means that whoever does finally manage to carve themselves a large piece of the MMO pie is going to have created a quality game, because it means they stepped up and properly competed. I maintain my cautious optimism that Bioware is the company that will finally step onto the same stage with Blizzard, even if they don't command the spotlight.
A recent article on Crispy Gamer discussed the inadequacies of the word "game." In the comments section of this article, the fact that the word is used to describe Sleep is Death by Jason Rohrer is given as evidence of this inadequacy because the word "game" doesn't adequately describe Rohrer's work.
The word "game" is necessarily vague because it stands for a broad swath of human experiences. The fact that we follow up the sentence "I am playing a game," with the question "What kind of game?" is no failure on behalf of the word. Unless someone is specifically referring to this meta view when they use the word "game" they are using it improperly. It requires modifiers to have any meaning outside of this one, like "board," "card," "dice," "video," "altered reality," etc. The language is clear, and adequate, if used properly.
In their book "Rules of Play, Game Design Fundamentals," Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen suggest that Sim City may not be a "game" because it lacks a victory condition. I think this is very reasonable and defensible argument. One of the things we see when we look at a "game" are victory conditions, positive or negative, temporary or permanent, which are a result of player interaction.
A simple game tends to have very defined, permanent victory conditions. Either you clear the deck in solitaire or you don't, and then the game is over and it's time to play another round. One of us puts the other in checkmate or we agree to call it a Draw, and then the game is over and it's time to set the pieces up again.
More complex games can have either partial victory conditions, or temporary conditions related to victory. In World of Warcraft, when we attempt a raid and the whole party gets wiped, that is a temporary condition of loss. We attempted a goal, and we failed it in epic fashion, thank you, Leeroy. That we can immediately dust ourselves off and get back up to make a fresh attempt is irrelevant in terms of temporarily having suffered a loss, a cost associated with failure, in this case the hours it took to organize the raid and then attempt to carry it out without achieving the desired end. We lost time.
Sometimes the victory conditions can be more vague, but still present. Sid Meier's Pirates! has a temporary condition of loss wherein the player loses their ship and moneys but can gain them back over time. The setback is real, and is avoidable if one does not fail at certain challenges. Farmville has a competition between players in regards to who has the biggest, best, farm - so there are winners and losers, which cannot exist without victory conditions. They may be constantly in flux, but they are still present.