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Digital Crack
October 9, 2002

I think fellow editor Nicole was the first to call it "digital crack" back when it first released on Dreamcast... having acquired the Japanese edition of Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II for Nintendo's GameCube, I've had many, many long overdue hours of entertainment, even more overdue than this editorials update. Before I get into that, I thought I'd rant on a few things about the game.

Sadly, Japanese players have found an exploit in the game, allowing duplication of items without the need of a cheat device or hacking game code. This brings up one of the biggest problems with online games: humanity. If you're going to revolve a game around the players, you're taking in the bad with the good. There's nothing more frustrating than grief-players who spend their entire time on an online game, bent on somehow ruining your fun, preferably killing you or stealing something important, or in the case of Phantasy Star Online on GameCube, attempting to ruin the game's online economy and flood the community with items, thereby making trading pointless and destroying any point to playing the game. Feel free to write in on this subject, not to express how you think it's stupid that Sonic Team let a bug get by (which is being addressed with a future updated release, and characters cannot transfer from the current release in Japan), but rather your thoughts on the issue of cheating.

Gameplay wise, PSO for GameCube is a phenomenal improvement. Every single gameplay problem I can think of that plagued the Dreamcast release has been addressed. Sonic Team listened to thousands of suggestions, and seems to have left nothing out (unless it was unreasonable, of course). Much more details when I review the game, but for now, I think it's time we delve into what this section is for. And I want to get back to playing my game of course. Onward.


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This Week's Question: Where do you see the MMO genre going from here?
 
 
Normal?

After we had to bear witness to almost three years of non-stop talk about hardware, next generation consoles, and their chances and possible market shares, the discussion is back at the core of this industry: games, and of course not to forget, from time to time we are still talking about consoles, this time about the fancy new toys which are already praised for being 100,000 times more powerful than the current ones and might come round in 2005. And I thought we wanted to talk about games.... Right there, games. Everyone expecting an avalanche of spectacular announcements in the period between the end of the last fiscal year on March 31st and E3 in mid-May must still feel like he or she has sipped too many bottles of high-percent alcoholics the previous night and wakes up the next day with a super-deformed head. Most companies resorted to surprise sequels, prequels or spin-offs. If you are looking for original, and dare I use the word innovative, titles you will have to take a really good look just to find ... Onimusha 2? Nope, sorry, that's another sequel. For an example, look at the already infamous Tetsuya Nomura-directed Disney RPG from Square, Kingdom Hearts. Or Bandai's brain-dazzling project .hack: A game that pretends to be an online RPG, while in reality being an offline RPG which takes place in the world of an online RPG. Got it? Since everything from racers over dancing games to horror action adventures and H-adventures (OK, admittingly the latter two genres are bad examples) will be cel-shaded, we should better skip this topic (or write another editorial on the issue in particular). Still, the writer may be forgiven for daring to mention his personal favorite cel-shaded game here: developed by a company whose name seems to come out straight of a Beavis and Butthead episode, Sucker Punch. SlyCooper and the Thievius Raccoonus looks like a truly nice game (just too bad, that my skills in playing platformers are mediocre at best).

As for the sequels, there are two categories: a large number of games whose predecessor(s) weren't released a long time ago, and then we have series that receive an update after slumbering for years, most prominently Sega classics a la Shinobi or Panzer Dragoon as well as Nintendo's Metroid, or Tecmo's Rygar and Ninja Gaiden. As you can easily figure, the first group is much larger. Onimusha 2, Final Fantasy XI, WildARMS Advanced, Legaia Duel Saga, Grandia Xtreme, Suikoden 3, Devil May Cry 2, Grand Theft Auto Vice City, Zelda, Mario Sunshine, Resident Evil Zero, Popolocrois 3, Dino Crisis 3, House of the Dead 3, Crazy Taxi High Roller, Phantasy Star Online Episode I and II, Sega GT 2002, Torneko 3, Tekken 4, Castlevania White Night Concerto, Tomb Raider Dark Angel, not to mention the usual annual update for all sports games you can possibly think of (or don't even want to think of). In short, the usual critics, who constantly remind you of how this industry lacks creativity will have a lot of ammunition at their disposal, and publishers, much like Conker in Bad Fur Day, will have dollars, dollars and more dollars (respectively yen or euro) in their eyes.

Despite a slow start, several of this year's releases seem to have a lot of promise. RPG fans will finally get a solid offering of games on the next generation consoles this fall, with Kingdom Hearts, Grandia Xtreme and Legaia Duel Saga all being available as well as Suikoden 3 and WildARMS Advance being released in a few weeks on this side of the Pacific. By December, importers and Japanese fans might as well already play Unlimited SaGa, Dark Chronicle and RPG Maker 5 on their PS2s, Shin Megami Tensei NINE on Xbox, Eternal Arcadia Legends on GameCube and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on their GBAs.

So, will this year be interesting or yet another boring year with few games to pick up and even fewer to enjoy? Looking at the release schedules should be enough for many fans, in particular Nintendo and Sony fanboys, to get excited. Big N has three big aces up their sleeves: new incarnations of its two biggest franchises, and finally after years of waiting, a new Metroid game. Add Biohazard Zero to the bunch and there you have a great year for a company that after 50 years, saw the resignation of its almighty President and verbal Yokozuna, Hiroshi Yamauchi. With him gone, Tecmo producer and Team Ninja boss Tomonobu Itagaki will easily win the award for the most outspoken industry VIP.

Despite the initial problems that accompanied the launch of its ambitious online service platform, Square should be back in the black by the end of the fiscal year, thus finally recovering from the aftershocks of the commercial disaster that was Final Fantasy The Movie.

And the games? Oh yeah, it was supposed to about games in the first place. Call me insane, but for the first time in years, no RPG will hold the title for the best selling game of the year in Japan. Odds are that this year's best selling game will either be an action adventure (Onimusha 2, Biohazard The 0th Pre-prequel or the new zel-shaded Zelda) or God forbid, a soccer simulation (Konami's Winning Pro Soccer Eleven). In the meantime, each and every developer of PC hentai adventures will cut the major selling point out of its game and then port them over to the good old Dreamcast (just too bad for DC users, that Sega has abandoned the infamous yellow and red labels from the Saturn age, which made interesting games easily recognizable).

So will it be a special year or yet another slow year, you ask? Well, depending on your perspective, it will be either both, either or neither. As always some people will jump for joy, while others will continue to rant about the lack of innovative software. I would just put it this way: After the heated introduction phase of the current generation of hardware, we will just have a "normal" year, with software not hardware being once again at the center of attention. But what is normal again?

- Chris Winkler

Parn:
I think it's safe to say that unless you own a PS2, you aren't going to be too excited as an RPG player. Those are my only real thoughts on this matter.
 
"For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee..."

Back then in better times there were peace, friendship and happiness in the videogame industry. Until slowly but surely, evil rants started to appear in interviews and usually perfect gentlemen took the chance to fire heavy verbal bullets towards their competitors. In the aforementioned good old days, only one gentleman had the right to resort to such means of verbal warfare: Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo of Japan's now-retired president. Whenever the man with the stylish glasses graced a reporter with his almighty presence, everyone listened and quite a lot of people had to laugh after hearing or reading the interview.

Recently, other very important persons of the industry have discovered this "way of the verbal gun" as well. Not too long ago, Capcom's Shinji Mikami drew his verbal assault rifle and started lashing out at Sony, Square and Japanese customers. What has struck the director of Resident Evil, probably was not his very own G...G...G-Virus, but rather the Ya... Ya... Yamauchi-virus.

Of course the man is right, as almost 800,000 of those ungrateful customers dared to buy Square's Kingdom Hearts, while only 200,000 thought his umpteenth Biohazard remake/port was worth its money. And all this despite Capcom this time even remade the game and not just relied on the usual strategy of porting the game over to yet another platform. Surely, Mr Mikami will be already looking forward to the reception of Biohazard 2 and 3 for GameCube, both of which won't feature any (visual) updates. Instead of lashing out at a competitor, which is at least trying to produce creative games, Capcom should review its own "more sequels on as many platforms as possible" strategy, which might be to blame for the lack of interest in Biohazard.

Does this "company A releases product - competitor releases eventually more successful product and sells more of it than A - A lashes out at B" pattern sound familiar? It should be, as this is exactly the way Shinji Mikami's new friends at Big N have always acted since Sony entered the industry in 1994 and kicked them from their throne as the No. 1 console maker. Apparently he already learned a few (not so gentleman-like) patterns of behavior from Yamauchi and company by now. Only at the end of the interview, after his beserk mode apparently was switched off, he came up with a (too) late and lackluster apology to Square.

And while Tecmo's Tomonobu Itagaki never had such a close relationship to Nintendo and instead develops games for Nintendo' biggest nemesis, Microsoft, the Dead or Alive producer also prefers bold words. In an interview conducted by GameSpy last year, Itagaki referred to Namco's Tekken 4 as a "piece of shit" and "half-assed" game. Just too bad that Tekken 4, regardless of how good it may or may not be, easily outsold Itagaki's Dead or Alive 4 in Japan (to be fair, this was admittingly not too difficult, considering a user-base of 10 million PS2's compared to a mere 250,000 Xbox units).

So what's the point here? Criticism is alright, and polemics might even be funny from time to time, however does a capable producer, director or executive, who has faith in his or her products really need to fear his or her competition so much that such verbal onslaughts become an everyday necessity in this industry? Doubtful, to say the least.

- Chris Winkler

Parn:
I find the outspoken to be hilarious, myself. It's all part in partial of how they make a name for themselves. They're also the ones that help bring some variety to the daily routine.
 
Effect of Emulation on the Gaming Industry

Roms and emulation as well as the process of burning CDs has been around for a long time now. The purpose of this editorial is to examine the long-term effects and possible consequences of emulation, and how the gaming industry has attempted to fight off this possible threat.

Roms and emulators can emulate a number of systems: from Atari to NES, Sega Master System, Genesis, SNES, to high-end platforms as N64 and Neo Geo, to portables such as GameBoy and GameGear, and to even arcade and computer games. The process of burning allows cheap production of knock offs from original copies to be played on systems with mod-chips, such as the Dreamcast and old Playstation consoles. What can be burned includes even emulators and ROMs of other systems as well as the games of that system. Fortunately for the gaming and music industries, many burned CDs have inherent flaws. At least 50% of the time, a flaw will corrupt the CD totally or cause alterations to it, such as a removal of a music track or an intro or ending cut-scene. And ROMs and emulators themselves have many flaws, such as bad dumps, poor labeling and listing, poor download times from websites, or extremely slow site load times. All of these frustrations tend to lessen the overall effect on the gaming industry as a whole. So why are the big companies worried? Well, if someone could produce an emulator/ROM site that worked perfectly with no flaws and have no flawed content and listed correctly, wouldn’t the video game companies be in trouble? And keep in mind that every time a user makes a burned CD (all it requires is a burner and blank CDs [About $4.00-5.00 a pop]) or downloads a ROM for free, a video game company just lost $20.00 to $50.00 for a sale of a game, even subtracting production costs and material costs (boxes, instruction, and all, we’ll say $15.00 for a low-end game and $40.00 for a high-end game), that means a company has lost between $5.00-$10.00 in profit per game sale. Even a small amount of emulation and burning causes a significant amount of profit loss for a gaming company.

Obviously, this hurts the classic gaming community, as well as gamers trying to sell old copies of games on older systems such as on eBay or the sale of never released games by companies or newly translated ones previously unseen in the USA. In the emulation of older NES and SNES games, which are now being ported to the Game Boy Advance on a regular basis, as well as emulating GameBoy games, this hurts sales of Nintendo's portable system and new carts for it, especially because of portable PCs such as laptops that act like a portable gaming system. Therefore, all ROMs hurt GameBoy sales as well by default. SNK no longer exists, probably a part of which can be pointed to weak Neo Geo sales, an overpriced system, and emulators and ROMs for the Neo Geo. Sales of PSX, N64, and Dreamcast games have all suffered from slightly to greatly as a result of burned CDs and ROMs.

One has to wonder if the fall of both the Dreamcast and N64 was a result of a lack of security of the carts and systems. Sony changed the PSX’s production line several times, and more recent consoles have had the mod-chip area removed. With most of Sony’s early consoles being below quality (and thereby prone to breakdown), this ensured that most PSX systems would be unable to use mod-chips and served to crackdown on emulation through burned CDs.

Some of the more current ways to increase security include switching from carts to CDs, which are much harder to emulate, making consoles without the ability to add mod-chips, and encrypting CDs to make them even harder to emulate. There is also the other tactic, involving shutting down internet sites that offer ROMs/emulators as well as ones that offer mod-chips for sale. The biggest problem with this tactic is that the internet is infinitely large, having the capacity to grow larger and larger with each new added domain site name. This makes tracking sites that offer these particular services extremely difficult, especially when these companies do not have enough staff to surf through the internet and find all these websites. Obviously, it is much more effective and cheaper to increase hardware and software security than to hire a large staff of internet snitches, informants, searchers, hackers, and security personnel. Sueing the people who make emulators has not worked, as most judges have viewed it as legal to crack open a console and see how it works, and then write up on how it works on the net. This is essentially an experiment in electronics/engineering after all. If you banned this type of document/experiment, you’d have to ban all sorts of other documents, like how the radio works, how the TV works, and other documents readily available. That sets a bad precedent and is why judges decide emulators are legal. Also, emulators themselves are not the problem, since without a game to be played on them, I doubt they’d be downloaded very often. ROMs are considered illegal, since such files have no engineering purpose, and they are only there to be downloaded and used with an emulator for game playing purposes. You can threaten to sue websites that have ROMs available for download though, which is what the big companies do. This tactic is somewhat effective and would be more so if the companies had a much larger internet staff to deal with this problem. Nintendo has also been encrypting its game boy carts for some time now to deal with the problem, though some new game’s codes are cracked here and there and make their way online. However, Nintendo has been much more effective with security on the GBA than with the GBC, or GB. The gaming companies have been much more successful at controlling emulation and burning than the music industry, which has been hit hard by both MP3 sites like Morpheus and Napster as well as CD burning, as well as a complete lack of original music for quite some time. The fact that the four companies that own all the radio stations in the USA have all the same play lists have turned off people to the radio, and therefore the music CDs that it promotes. Instead, music connoisseurs turn to the internet to get their fix for grunge, alternative, indie, jazz, and other music styles that fit their personality and listening preferences. Emulation has hurt the gaming industry much less than the music companies.

Overall, emulation is about a major increase in the popularity of classic gaming and people being turned off by the near constant march to new systems in the gaming industry. Does emulation hurt gaming companies? Yes it does, and it also hurts the consumer overall, since when the consumer wants to turn around and sell his/her old games, they will find a market that is undervalued because of emulation. Emulators and ROMs are much more suited to cart based games (therefore mostly a GBA problem now), so the real problem for new systems is the process of burning CDs. Improvements in security by gaming companies have deterred emulation somewhat, but as the Chinese destroyed millions of copies of pirated software shortly before joining the WTO demonstrated, emulation and CD burning is much more rampant in society (ours and others) than we think.

- Steven "The Old School" Gamer

Parn:
Emulation's a touchy subject... though I do want to shed some thoughts on one point you made in reference to classic games.

I think it's good that some companies want to bring classic games to the newer consoles. However, sometimes the effort put into it reflects the sales they'll recieve. For instance, I own all the Sonic games on the Sega Genesis, and still love them to this day. I also purchased Sonic Jam, which is a compilation of the core Sonic series on one CD, which also boasted a special 3D museum and lots of extras such as commercials, artwork, and so forth... as a Sonic fan, I eagerly purchased this CD, despite my easily being able to play Sonic on my Genesis, or even an emulator.

When Sonic Mega Collection releases in stores for GameCube, I'm going to buy it, but how many other people purchase it may be influenced by how much effort they put into the product. If they jam pack it full of extras, people will gobble it up. If it's anything like Sega's attempts to make a quick buck by (crappily) emulating a few old Genesis games on Dreamcast and not putting any effort into it, it will sell like crap.

I don't think emulation affects classic gaming being ported over... not enough to matter, I feel.


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