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Hardware, Innovation, and Music
April 30, 2003

Greetings once again, fair readers. Roughly a week has passed, and in short order I've received three new editorials, including a lengthy but insightful commentary by Chris Winkler regarding the future of console hardware, a short but aurally inclined piece from reader T.A.M., and a passionate plea to all rpgfans to appreciate innovation. Of course, this means that I've blown my proverbial wad on this update, so send in some more pieces. Academic, opinion, rebuttals, we'll take them all.

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

Sony Computer Entertainment took its time. For months, company representatives refused to admit what most analysts have long regarded as a fact: the implementation into the next PlayStation console of CELL, the revolutionary CPU jointly developed by SCE, IBM, and Toshiba. On Easter Monday, SCE, probably inspired by the custom of the Easter eggs, officially announced that CELL will indeed be at the center of what might be called PlayStation 3. Up until now, Sony and Sony Computer Entertainment representatives talked a lot about CELL's (almost) unlimited potential and the new chip's key role in the internet age, but never directly confirmed that it will be part of SCE's upcoming game console (nonetheless, one didn't have to be an insider to assume the latter).

Apart from heavy investment into new chip technology over the next few years, SCE President and CEO (and designated Sony Vice-President) Ken Kutaragi and Sony President Kunitake Ando announced plans to integrate the PlayStation 2's CPU (the Emotion Engine), GPU (the Graphics Synthesizer) and RAM into one single chip, code-named Dragon. And who said history won't repeat itself? For beginners, SCE in a similar move first scaled down the number of parts used in the production of the original PlayStation by 50% (the result was the PlayStation One) only to squeeze its first console into one single chip, which later became a part of the PlayStation 2. Besides allowing users to play the vast majority of their beloved PlayStation titles on the new console, the chip also serves as the PS2's I/O chip. True, SCE has yet to announce a re-designed PS Two (like it did with the PS One), but since Ken Kutaragi already hinted at implementing a downward compatibility in the third generation of PlayStation hardware, the announcement of the Dragon chip could as well be the first step into the direction of a strategy similar to the one outlined above.

So, what will the next generation of hardware bring us? First of all, an old companion: hype. Whether we will witness a repetition of the pre-PS2 launch hype remains to be seen, however Sony's promise to deliver a console a thousand times more powerful than the current hardware will probably not fall on some deaf ears. And even if the first generation of games will look better than their mostly mediocre counterparts of 2000, a lot of formerly hyped-up people will cry foul once the console is here and with it games that do not look thousands of times better than the last generation of PS2 titles. Maybe someone should tell me that a hardware x times more powerful than its predecessor does not necessarily result in x times better looking visuals in advance this time around. Sadly the hype train tends to gain speed rather quickly and considering the insane level of reason-defying noise it produces (even in the case that Sony Computer Entertainment's marketing division won't do such a great job as prior to the PS2's launch), such a cry for reason will go unheard. Hence, it might as well be a good idea to sit back with your favorite beverage in hand and watch another tragic comedy unfold.

To go back to the questions raised at the beginning of the last paragraph, it might still be interesting to know on what kind of machines we will waste anywhere between 300 to 400 USD again, when the time has come (presumably sometime in 2005 or 2006). “Online features,” despite the bust of the tech bubble, is still such a cool buzz phrase. Considering the projected growth rates for online gaming, Sony Computer Entertainment, Nintendo, and Microsoft might be well-advised to implement the necessary equipment (ethernet adaptor, harddisk drive, etc.) required for online gaming in their consoles right from the beginning (as Microsoft has done so with Xbox already). Regardless of the fact that online gaming will not replace packaged (offline) software as the industry's No.1 source of revenue, it should still become a major factor in the console market soon enough. Add to that a lot of conventional hardware power and everyone should be happy. Well, everyone except Sony and Microsoft. Ever since the PS2's launch Sony has aimed for more than just a game console. Ken Kutaragi has already conquered 3D in 1994 and now the influential boss of Sony Computer Entertainment wants to conquer the internet. CELL is the ambitious center piece of this strategy. Always the visionary, Kutaragi and SCE are aiming to create a platform that does not only allow the users to play games, but also download movies and music (thereby playing into the hands of Sony Pictures and Music Entertainment). Microsoft apparently has similar plans for its Xbox successor, but so far has kept to itself regarding details about its second console. Among the three hardware manufacturers, Big N is the least likely to create a multimedia device offering it all. Unlike its two competitors, Nintendo has, for more than 20 years, done nothing else but produce game hard- and software. For Sony and Microsoft on the other hand, it is tempting to use their next consoles as hubs to promote other non-game related products of its and their partners' portfolio. And according to recent surveys, this strategy may as well work, as more than 60% of the industry's most important target group (teenagers and young adults aged 14 to 26) are interested in services such as video-on-demand.

While details and specifications of the new consoles are obviously far from being released (as companies want to cash in on their current hardware and software) most partnerships formed during the development of the current generation have apparently been renewed. Sony Computer Entertainment is back working with its close partner Toshiba, ATI will return to develop the GPU for Nintendo's GameCube successor and nVIDIA will most likely cooperate with Microsoft again. In the meantime, IBM, which provided Nintendo with the GameCube's Gekko CPU has joined forces with SCE and Toshiba to work on CELL, while NEC, eager to compete with its rival Toshiba, has joined forces with Nintendo.

And the outcome? A recent research paper by the DFC Intelligence drew a conclusion generally considered by the majority of analysts as the most likely outcome; Sony Computer Entertainment will once again lead the pack, however both Microsoft and Nintendo should be capable of narrowing the gap obviously existing in the current generation of hardware.

So until the roll-out of the three consoles, I will enjoy watching the tragic comedy unfolding on the hype train that will eventually embark on its roller-coaster-like journey, hope to play some more good (offline) titles (a la Final Fantasy XII or Sakura Taisen 5) when they come around, and take some satisfaction in the fact that even with a new generation of hardware finally turning many (previously unrealized) online dreams into reality, game companies will, for profit's sake, continue to develop offline titles. Some of which might as well offer compelling stories, solid development of characters, a great atmosphere, and entertaining gameplay.

- Chris Winkler

Damian:
With Sony's new CELL technology set to revolutionize the internet and the industry (at least according to them) we should be inundated with more and more hype and a larger market for Sony products. Now, from what I gather, CELL manages to share processing power with other CELL chips in other devices, meaning that your PS3 would work even better, run even faster if you had it hooked to a Sony Television with a Sony DVD player. But I wonder, if Sony plans to put this new CELL technology in more and more of its products, how long until the desperate overclockers start plugging into Sony Walkmans, Sony Camcorders, Sony Digital Cameras, and Sony Toasters? Crispy bagels at the speed of light? Interesting possibilities.
 
Music Versus Sounds

Playing RPG's is a mega-hobby of mine and I was noticing more and more how many games are going from a more Music basis to a sound effect basis.

Probably the most prevalent part of any video game is the sound effects and music. These are of course some of the most memorable things to us, the gamers. Perhaps you were blown away by the music of FF7, or the vocals in Rhapsody. Music is a big part of a video game. It’s what we remember next after the characters and plot.

But playing through Xenosaga, I began to notice it leaned more on the sound effects side and not the music. Like when walking around, each playable character has a different sound for when they step. Also the sounds of the machines, explosions and everything else really add up. But where is the music? The music only shows up in certain parts of the game like battles, certain cinematics and other places.

But there aren't area specific tracks like in most other games. Even such newer games as .Hack//Infection and Suikoden III still have area music on top of the sound effects, which makes me wonder, was the music purposefully left out of Xenosaga?

Which is the really surprising thing. Monolith Soft went to one of the most renowned orchestras in the world, the London Philharmonic, to perform the music, and where the music is within the game it definitely shows how most of the game doesn't have the focus on the music but rather concentrates more on the sound effects.

Don't get me wrong, there are times where I get sick of the same song played over and over forever (overworld themes mostly), but there is just a complete lack of music in this game. That’s why, instead of a 3 or four CD OST its only 2 CD's.

So, is this going to be a continuing trend in later games by other companies? More emphasis on sound effects and less on music? I wish this writer could tell you, but so far it doesn't seem so.

- T.A.M.

Damian:
While I haven't really noticed this problem in Xenosaga, I've heard the complaint, especially from fellow editor Rob B. that Xenosaga's battle music gets repetative. Then again, since I've been stuck at a boss for weeks now, I'm not really the authority here. I do know one thing, however: OSTs used to be TOTALLY comprehensive, with every sound effect, every note, every voice clip included. Nowadays you're lucky to get all the music, let alone a minidisc with every sound effect in the game. Well, there's always the 9 minutes of belching, screaming, moaning, dying zombies from RE 2 and Veronica to keep the neighbors away. Huuuuuuuuur.
 
Return of the Sequel III

A long time ago we lived in what I call the era of the brave. This era, which ended even lesser then not long ago, was a bountiful and lush era, a wonderful phase in the history of our industry… excuse me OUR! Industry. Yes, we the people that buy the products, we the market, we the consumer! Anyways... where was I? Our industry was in a creative phase. We know what era this was, it created such studios as Square, Enix, Gamearts and maybe we can even fit Konami… maybe. Not to mention those who have passed on, may they rest in peace (Tri-Ace) (Browny Brown); god blesses the meek. Anyways, we know what this era was and what it created, how it inspired a generation and angered another (sorry mom). An era when designers created video games from their hearts, not pre-market analysis statements and cash flow plans, although those too can be created from the heart, most likely some marketing manager in a cubical in a far off land.

What am I saying … this era still continues, great seque… urgh, I mean great games are made? We’ve seen great new titles being made like Dark Cloud, which eventually became a sequel… bad example. How about Grandia... ok, wait Jade Cocoon.. hmm. Oh god! We’re doomed! There must be a truly classical RPG that made us play again and again. Ask yourself this, when was the last time you cried and laughed from playing an RPG? If movies can do it, why can’t we? If books can do it, why can’t we! When was the last time you played a game in which no sequel would do it justice? No movie shall rich it’s name, and no mouse pad or coffee mug will expand it’s vision. Oh beautiful RPG, where are you? Will you grace us with your presence?

It is up to us, the rpgfans. That is what we are the “rpgfans”. Do not be confused with the site, for it is not only a site but also a culture. Sadly, it is a culture caught up in the ultimate dark hole of darkness. The players shout, “we want new games!” but when a new game comes out, we say we want the old games back. The developers, confused and dazed, produce the same with another layer of pixie dust and chocolate cream. How sweet it is, but like all good candy it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Are the developers in which we invest our 50 bucks with, listening to us? We must ask whose fault is it that Final Fantasy is about to reach 13? Why did they not change the name after 5? Whose fault is it that we don’t even notice classic titles that are innovative and push the boundary? They go unnoticed. It is we, the people that must scream and yell. We must say we want new and we are ready to accept new even if it is strange and different. Because once we get past that stage of difference there is light on the other side. But it is we, the rpgfans that must make clear to our brothers at arms. “Make new,” we will support you brothers, on your journey through the unknown and not turn our back on you from a world of quick sequels and roundabout charms.

The designer may listen, they do respect us, but when and if a new form of RPG comes out will you support it or shun it? And if you do support it will the designers sequlize it? Who knows? Who cares? I do. I care. My life is worth more then any sequel and eye candy. I want to cry I want laugh but I don’t want to watch a movie or read a book in order to do so, I want to play… I want to roleplay…

- Midnight Merchant

Damian:
Well that was an impassioned plea for acceptance of the novel. I have to agree that on a certain level I enjoy innovation for the sake of innovation, but at the same time, game companies are still responding to market demand, and that means that games need to be fun. Although I've heard of the novel idea of making games that are not designed with entertainment as the key focus, they'll most likely be the domain of academia and art, not entertainment.


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