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The Slow Death of LucasArts

There was a time when LucasArts meant innovative games, for reasons that had little to do with Star Wars or really George Lucas.

Loom, Zak McKracken, Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, The Dig, Sam and Max. Now LucasArts is known for Star Wars merchandising games. And that’s it. And the company is in trouble because there’s only so much demand for the same Star Wars games. You can only sell people so many Star Wars shooters and RPG’s.

As a company that’s defined itself solely around its connection to the films of George Lucas, LucasArts has felt the impact of the bar being raised for games inspired by films. In 2010, the company laid off a third of its staff in one fell swoop following disappointing sales and a middling critical response to The Force Unleashed II.

That’s actually not true.

LucasArts wasn’t originally defined by the films of George Lucas, despite the name. There were a few Indiana Jones games, but not that many. Then the Star Wars games began in nineties. The first ones were good. The rest began getting worse and worse.

The Force Unleashed was ridiculously overhyped and presented as a major revolution. It wasn’t. Now LucasArts is back looking for another overhyped AAA Star Wars solution in the form of 1313. It may get it, it may not. But there’s no sign of the original creative company that made games like Loom or Monkey Island happen.

The recent repack of Monkey Island is just a reminder of what the company can’t do anymore. Like Grim Fandango. Telltale Games is the closest to doing some of what LucasArts used to do, though it’s really more of an awkward echo.

Star Wars 1313 is positioning itself unequivocally as a mature, adult experience. The scant information that’s been teased about the game follows suit: you play a bounty hunter in a gritty criminal underworld. It’s going to be a cover-based shooter, which probably means there will be lots of dank hallways and angry hordes of aliens to fight through. I don’t want to let my imagination run wild here, but it sounds like a “Star Wars” game is finally learning from the two sci-fi franchises that have eclipsed it in gamer’s popular imagination: Mass Effect and Gears of War. Both of these titles obviously owe a great deal to Star Wars and the fiction it helped create for pop culture to embrace, but has Star Wars itself been eclipsed?

This is the same old bad strategy. The one that gave us Republic Commando, because squad based combat plus Unreal plus Star Wars was supposed to equal money. Not to mention Battlefront.

Copying popular games and slapping a Star Wars label on them doesn’t work reliably. The Star Wars universe is already repetitive and cramped. Bioware and Obsidian gave it a little breathing room with Knights of the Old Republic, but that’s done too, and it’s telling that outside companies had to make this happen.

Having a game company exist just to churn out Star Wars titles by copying popular games and slapping a Star Wars label on them is a poor strategy. It’s not the best way to monetize Star Wars. The best way to do that is to just license games or develop a company that is genuinely creative and capable of making creative games, whether they’re Star Wars or anything else.

LucasArts could learn something from the failures of Paramount to milk the Star Trek cow the same way. But at least Paramount didn’t set up a company that only turned out Elite Force, Bridge Commander, Legacy and Star Trek Online. And Paramount didn’t turn a leading game company into an outlet for doing poor copies of popular games under a Star Wars logo.

LucasArts once resembled Sierra. Sierra died and hung around as a living dead brand. LucasArts has gone the same way. The only question left is when do we get “Star Wars: Grand Theft Spaceship”.

The LucasArts Archives: Volume III

Why SyFy Abandoned Science Fiction

SyFy is Dead

This isn’t about the woman looking contemplatively at one of the worst programming slates on television , she doesn’t exist except as a heavily photoshopped model who probably thought she was posing for some ad that required her to be mildly amused, maybe at her new phone or the plight of children somewhere.

This is about what SyFy thinks she represents and what it wants ad buyers to think she represents.

This isn’t just another ad pitching SyFy to viewers, this is an ad pitching it to media buyers. This is the audience that SyFy wants to have.

Let’s start out with the obvious. She’s not a man. That’s not coincidental. Women are where the ad dollars are now.

She’s an “Igniter” who “sparks trends”, which means the ad dollars go further because she influences the buying habits of others. That’s a load of crap, especially when it comes to SyFy Channel viewers, but this is the brass ring of advertising.

Now imagine the exact opposite of this coolly amused young woman who influences her friends to buy major brands by making them seem cool? If you answered a viewer of Science Fiction television, as imagined by SyFy executives to be a fat middle-aged man, you are correct. And that is the audience SyFy doesn’t want, because it’s the audience their USA bosses don’t want.

But don’t take it from me, take it from the SyFy pitch.

Syfy has a target audience in mind: people with a shared mindset of curiosity, optimism, creativity and open-mindedness that drives them to take risks, push boundaries and challenge the status quo. They call these people—who are the first to find and try new things and share those finds with others—”Igniters.”

This their target audience. It’s not people who like Science Fiction, it’s people who watch SyFy shows about ghost hunting and makeup because they “push boundaries” and “challenge the status quo”. They’re exactly like Occupy Wall Street, except they buy stuff, instead of protest.

If you want to promote your new Samsung phone or non-alcoholic cranberry drink to an audience that will convince other people to try it, come and pitch to the viewers of our cooking shows and makeup shows and stuff we put together as cheaply as possible in order to build that quality “Igniter” audience.

Founded in 1992 as SCI FI Channel, Syfy is celebrating its 20th anniversary by embracing the innovation of Igniters. What exactly is an Igniter? To develop the psychographic profile, Syfy has used both Simmons data and a custom study conducted with PSFK. Simmons demonstrates that Igniters are the first to find, try and buy new products and then influence the masses to do the same. The PSFK study adds that Igniters are a powerful force in today’s market because portability and social media have given rise to new tools.

This is a ton of nebula gasses, but SyFy needs to sell this to position its viewers as savvy post-television influencers who will go out and have an impact on social media.

Look at what’s missing from the picture.

The words “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy” never appear in this piece. Superhero and supernatural are okay. Those aren’t, even when HBO is doing great with Game of Thrones. (HBO is also careful to avoid the “F” word when talking about Game of Thrones.) The name change wasn’t an accident. The former SciFi channel doesn’t want to be associated with Science Fiction. It wants to be associated with an audience it can’t have.

SyFy can’t get the flavored vodka and hot nightspots audience it’s pretending to have. It can’t have it because it’s cheap, its programming is risk free and crap. It wants to pretend that it offers million dollar value to advertisers while running a 99 cent store full of crap that no one else wants and its original programming is indistinguishable from the reality TV on every other channel.

The audience it has is not the audience it wants. It wants models who smile ambiguously at unseen things in the air. SyFy has an abusive relationship with its audience. Eventually it will drive away the last of its unique audience and be stuck with the kind of people who want to watch idiots pretending to chase ghosts around a set or who will sit through a show about makeup artists and a third-rate cooking show.

And then finally SyFy will have the audience it deserves. The 99 cent store of cable television will have 99 cent store viewers. Maybe they’ll even ignite a ghost chasing trend and then “share” it on social media.

Is Activision Spamming Forums with Diablo 3 Talking Points?

I didn’t buy Diablo 3. I barely made it through a third of Diablo 2 before getting bored (Diablo 1 was awesome though) and an always on connection and no pause button just to play single player for a game whose style is so common there’s an army of clones just seemed stupid. But looking through gaming forums, the same talking points were being repeated.

Players complaining were being “entitled”, “spoiled” or “whiny crybabies”. There’s no such thing as “single player” in Diablo 3, even though there obviously is. “Be an adult”. Take a “Realistic Attitude”.

Basically, “Suck it up and take it.” That seems like the kind of message a corp would put out, not people.

How much of this was just fanboy craziness and how much of it was talking points from corporate stooges? An AAA game has a marketing budget that easily covers hiring a few hundred people to flood forums with the same message. Companies and governments already do it.

How can you tell? Patterns. Organizations do things in patterns. The pattern draws attention to itself.

if people could use some perspective, maybe you’ll stop taking these minor setbacks so bitterly and coming off as awful spoiled children.”

Stop being childish, immature, and a spoiled brat. If you’ve played Blizzard products before, you know that hotfixes, patches, and delays are a natural part of the game experience.”

It’s getting to the point where childish entitled brats are making so much noise that they drown out the more sensible and realistic people.

There is frankly nothing to apologize for Sometimes things don’t work. Particularly in situations like this. You mean you really weren’t anticipating server issues in the first few weeks? Have you even played any videogames before?

There’s about a million more of these and they all sound the same.

1. Diablo 3 is the best game ever and I love it

2. You’re a selfish, immature, crybaby child who makes me embarrassed to be a gamer

3. It’s normal for a game to be broken on launch. It’s normal for a game to have single player tethered to servers. There’s no such thing as single player in Diablo III anyway.

Now if you had the job of dealing with an explosion of customer anger, you would profile your users. How would you respond to that anger? By introducing talking points aimed at them. Are your customers young adult males? Tell them that they’re immature for not being okay with it. Tell them that they’re missing out on the best game ever.

Does that prove anything? No, but patterns are patterns.

Three Reasons Why Half Life 3 Isn’t Coming

It’s not impossible that Half Life 3 will show up at some point, but despite the fan campaigns it probably won’t. Why not?

1. Valve doesn’t need Half Life 3. The most obvious reason to make Half Life 3 is for the money and between Steam and its other successful franchises, Valve doesn’t need to invest a lot of time and money into making HL3. It can do other things. If it does HL3 it will only be because it chooses to, not because of fan pressure or financial pressure.

It’s been five years since anything Half Life has come out. Before then Valve didn’t have much going on that wasn’t Half Life or one its spinoffs. Since then it has two new franchises and a huge success with Steam.

2. It’s not the kind of game that Valve is interested in making. Half Life 1 and 2 were single player shooters with some puzzle action. Valve has switched to social co-op and multiplayer games with larger puzzle solving elements and more humor. Valve isn’t interested in spending a lot of time on a single player first person shooter. Not when it can do things like Portal or L4D.

3. There’s nowhere else to go. That’s probably something Valve decided around Episode 2. Half Life 2 turned the entire world into Half Life 1. What is Half Life 3 going to do?

Valve isn’t all that interested in pushing graphics to the limit. It’s already done a planet overrun with aliens. It can do more of the same. It isn’t interested in incorporating the RPG elements that gave depth to games like DEHR. It can Portal it up all the way, but that would be redundant.

And here’s a bonus reason. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. That’s eight years ago. Today’s teenagers never played it. Half Life was released in the last century. Fourteen years ago. Sure Valve could still roll out Half Life 3 with a tweaked engine and some more puzzles and co-op. They might have in development right now. But they probably don’t.

Microsoft’s Moment

Microsoft is either on its last legs or on the verge of seizing the future by the throat. It all depends on who you ask. It’s easy to dwell on its legion of failures. A company which could have had iTunes, Android, the iPad and the iPhone is still clumsily playing catchup and asking customers to take another look at yet another mobile product that they’re not interested in anymore. Its biggest non-legacy asset is still the XBox. But Microsoft is trying, still plowing money into one thing or another. And occasionally there are signs showing that it gets it. Windows 8 will either allow it to muscle its way into the mobile marketplace or turn into another major dud. But even if it does it still has the cash flow and the determination not to give up. Some companies are smart and graceful, Microsoft has always been the bull. It may miss its moment but it will keep on pushing forward.

The Best of Gene Wolfe book review

The Best of Gene Wolfe The best way to read The Best of Gene Wolfe is to open the book, read the first story, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and then close the book and put it away. Not only doesn’t it get any better from here, it gets much worse.

The cover blurbs on the book boast that Wolfe is Melville, Dostoevsky and Dickens all rolled into one. Truth be told he’s a second-rate Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson rolled into one, and The Best of Gene Wolfe is his idea of what his best stories are. Which with authors is rarely a good thing.

I’m not a Wolfe hater. The man has written some great stories and most of them are in here, so are stories that should never have seen the light of day. If you’ve read the usual Best of the Year and Hugo and Nebula collections, then you’ve probably seen the good ones. You may have also seen some of the terrible ones like The Dream Detective, an upscale Catholic version of a Jack Chick tract.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus is in here, so is The Tree is My Hat and Seven American Nights. Unfortunately so is Forlesen, an endless story about how awful working for a corporation is, along with numerous stories that just aren’t stories. Take The Death of the Island Doctor, which Wolfe in his afterword mentions that he is pleased it is nothing like a story. But maybe it should have been.

The Best of Gene Wolfe is filled with stories that aren’t really stories, but probably should have been stories. Or the space taken up by them should have been filled by stories. Some like From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton, On the Train or The God and His Man are wankery, there’s no better word for it.

For every adequate story like Westwind, or And When They Appear, there’s a Game in the Pope’s Head or The Parkroads. And the rare good ones like Straw, are more than offset by all the rest. The average quality of the collection is not good, but anyone who’s a fan of Wolfe will eat it up. Those who aren’t, might want to consider just buying a couple of old Hugo and Nebula collections for a better overall quality mix.

The Redemption of Tom Cruise?

The official word is that Tom Cruise has saved Christmas for Hollywood. That’s even sorta true, but only because MI4 was the only movie launched that didn’t hopelessly underperform the way a bunch of other movies did. But MI4 isn’t much of a hit, its opening box office was at or below MI3 levels. And MI3 was already below earlier installments and MI4 made a chunk of its money from IMAX and its inflated ticket prices.

If MI4 ends up making more money than MI3 it will only be because there’s no serious competition and that makes it the default choice for people who want to sell out some money and sit in front of a flickering screen without having to talk too much for 90 minutes. But it won’t be because MI4 is a good movie or because Cruise has regained his appeal.

Paramount’s scheduling bet for MI4 paid off when the other studios tanked. If there’s no recovery then MI4 will probably make more money than MI3, which opened in May. Does that testify to a resurrection of Cruise’s appeal? He probably kept his appeal overseas, but Americans didn’t go to see MI4 for Cruise, they went for the same reason that they went to see the earlier MI movies or the Transformer movies. Because a lot of stuff explodes on screen.

Movie Box Office vs Video Game Sales

These comparisons started with the Call of Duty series and its blockbuster sales. Take this from the Economist

“Black Ops” is not a film or a book: it is a video game. For comparison, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, the current record-holder for the fastest-selling film at the box office, clocked up just $169m of ticket sales on its first weekend. “Black Ops” stole the crown from its predecessor in 2009, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”. The latest instalment, “Modern Warfare 3”, released on November 8th, set a record of its own with $750m in its first five days.

Money is money, but in the number of customers, Harry Potter Whatever beat Call of Duty Whatever. Movie tickets these days are still mostly under 15 dollars (or maybe I’m wrong) and the price for something like COD MW 3 is probably going to be around 50-60 dollars. There are still theaters where you can see movies for 10 bucks or so. So Harry Potter scored several times MW3’s audience, MW3 just made money off a smaller group of people.

But box office sales count ticket sales no the total money spent, which with snacks is probably going to be double that, at least. Movie theaters make their money from snack sales. Studios make a sizable chunk of change from later DVD and Blu Ray sales. None of this shows up front. Games do have DLC sales but they’re still a fraction of the total. So the picture isn’t as unbalanced as it seems.

Games still cost less than movies to make and turn a larger profit. Especially with growing direct sales to customers and no need to split the profits with a theater chain. MW2 cost around 40-50 million but had a launch budget of around 200 million dollars. MW3 probably had an even bigger launch budget.

That 250 million for MW2 is Harry Potter and the DH2’s film budget (though not its promotional budget) which helps put things into proportion. Its total worldwide take was over 1.3 billion, most of that foreign. MW2 had over a billion in sales, but took in most of its sales in the US.

MW2 has the lead because it extracted more money from individual customers, but it has fewer of those and they are more localized. It probably has the lead in revenues since movie studios don’t make nearly as much from box office, especially foreign box office, but it also has to spend something like the budget for making a Potter film just to get those customers.

The Dimension Sequel Factory

The Weinstein Company isn’t doing that great, but neither is the Dimension side of the business which has become a sequel factory. Going sequel factory was an okay enough plan in a crazy environment where everything is being remade or rebooted. But Scream 4 and Spy Kids 4 both failed. And next up is Scary Movie 5, Halloween 3 and a bunch of stuff like it.

Obvious problems are longish lead times from the last movie released. Horror franchises work when movies keep being released. But when you wait 5-10 years to do a sequel, the only people who remember it are already in their 20’s or 30’s. That’s what killed Scream 4, a movie aimed at teens, from a franchise that was shaky when today’s teens were in diapers. Spy Kids is the same thing, except the kids who enjoyed it then aren’t parents yet, and today’s kids have never heard of it.

Then there’s the goofy ones like Short Circuit 3. A sequel to a classic and ridiculous 80’s movie series that’s going to feature Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens has my vote. But how many people are actually going to go see it? Dimension Films is distributing, not producing it, which is even sadder, because it’s the only palatable thing they’ve got.

Time for a Purge at NBC

This was supposed to be the season of recovery for NBC, but the only new show it has that anyone will watch voluntarily is yuppie bait, Up All Night.

Making the situation worse is that NBC has a schedule full of dogs as it keeps bringing back loser shows like Community, Chuck and Parks and Recreation which shut out even more of a potential audience. NBC needs a major purge, badly, but this is the 30 Rock network with its head too far up its own peacock to do what has to be done.

The Office won’t last forever. Playboy Club was a bad idea that performed badly. Prime Suspect could have worked, but it’s a dead end. Keeping Community on might be defensible if it at least hit the demographic sweet spot, but it doesn’t.

NBC used to rule Thursday night. Now Community pulls in audiences about the size of a community college against a Big Bang Theory past its prime. And Parks and Recreation gets eaten for lunch by everyone. It’s time for NBC to pull the plug.

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