Thursday, May 15, 2008

April NPD Tea Leaves

Every month, we get detailed analysis of the sales figures provided by the NPD Group for the video game industry from just about everyone on the internet. Well, this month I thought I'd join in on the discussion with my very own armchair analysis based on silly numbers and my own experience as a gamer and consumer. So here goes..

The Raw Data (taken from Joystiq)

- Wii: 714.2K (previously 721K)
- DS: 414.8K (previously 698K)
- PSP: 192.7K (previously 297K)
- 360: 188K (previously 262K)
- PS3: 187.1K (previously 257K)
- PS2: 124.4K (previously 216K)

The Hardware

Nintendo has demonstrated month after month the unstoppable power of the Wii, and April was no different. Selling an impressive 714K (in a non-holiday month, no less), the Nintendo Wii was way out in front of its current-gen counterparts, Microsoft's Xbox 360 (188K) and Sony's PS3 (187K). To put that into perspective, for every Wii sold last month, there was one Xbox 360 or PS3 sold. While the high-def consoles only had GTA IV to count on for pushing hardware sales, Nintendo had the wave of both Super Smash Bros Brawl and Mario Kart Wii to ride through the past month or so. Also, the people buying Wiis are doing so in a much more viral way than the other consoles, with friends and loved ones being the main stimulus for families and couples to buy. Perhaps all these people going to parties and seeing Smash Bros and Mario Kart are keeping the momentum going for Nintendo. I also feel like "price" is a huge factor in the continuing overall month-to-month sales. The hardware sales chart shows that the top 3 selling systems are all under $250. And since every platform now has enough decent games to warrant a purchase, it really comes down to that affordability, and for the mass market the line has been drawn fairly clearly.

Finally, for the second month in a row, the Xbox 360 has maintained the hardware lead over the PS3, albeit by an almost imperceptible margin. These two consoles will continue to duke it out, but I can't see either one really making too significant an impact over the other during the rest of 2008. GTA IV and upcoming games Metal Gear Solid 4 may offer a slight edge to the PS3, but just like Halo 3 did last year, it will generate a very gradual adoption rate. We already know a great deal about Sony and Microsoft's 2008 lineup, and I doubt there will be anything truly Earth-shattering announced at E3 his July. Nintendo has been relatively quite about its upcoming titles, but with hardware sales like April, does it really have to?

April Software Numbers

1. GTA IV – Xbox 360 – 1.85 million*
2. Mario Kart Wii – Wii – 1.12 million
3. GTA IV – PS3 – 1.00 million*
4. Wii Play w/ remote – Wii – 360K
5. Super Smash Bros. Brawl – Wii – 326K
6. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue – PS3 – 224K
7. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness – DS – 202K
8. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time – DS – 202K
9. Guitar Hero III – Wii – 152K
10. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – Xbox 360 – 141K*
* includes bundles, collector's editions, GOTY editions

The Software

I know it's getting a little redundant, but GTA IV has easily claimed the top spot in April software sales, with the XBox 360 version alone beating out Mario Kart Wii. With a combined cross-platform release of 2.85 million units in the first few days, it's obvious why it broke so many entertainment sales records. Mario Kart also debuted the same week (2 days earlier) with a respectable 1.12 million units sold. No offense Mario, but nothing (not even Master Chief) can stand up to Rockstar and company's marquee title. Hard to believe that GTA IV almost outsold Nintendo's mascot racer on 2 separate platforms this month (especially when you compare the install bases of the PS3 and Wii). Chalk some of that up to there still simply being a lower amount of compelling titles on the PS3.

Other things to note.. Super Smash Bros Brawl continues to sell well (going on month 3 now) coming in at #5. It seems Wii Play is like the software pack-in that won't ever go away. I doubt that controller pack will ever disappear from the software charts, since everyone needs an extra wii-remote.. but should we really consider it a software title? I could see Nintendo transplanting the Wii Play game with another similar mini-game collection title to continue to sell those $40 controller bundles. Two more Pokemon Mystery crap DS games also show up, which just goes to show how powerful the Pokemon brand remains. The $40 Gran Turismo demo (*ahem* I mean Gran Turismo 5 Prologue) shows up at #6, though I'm not sure if that also counts the digital download version as well as retail copies. Rounding out the list are Top 10 mainstays, Call of Duty 4 on 360 and Guitar Hero III on Wii.

Not much else to say except a heck of a lot of people bought GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii. I noticed Microsoft touted their incredibly high attach rate (games sold to consoles sold ratio), but they always do that each month. I guess it's not much different than NBC shouting about how great their numbers are in the much sought after 18-35 demographic for The Office. You might say that this data is even more valuable to publishers than claiming overall sales figures, because at the end of the day, it's really the highly targeted audience that matters. Just like knowing exactly who watches your shows can help advertisers get more for their ad dollars, so too can making games you know will sell well on certain platforms. Like for example, I'm sure the karaoke American Idol game sells much better on the Wii than the 360, which is exactly the right platform for that crap anyway.

So, What Did We Learn?

End of story, Rockstar and Take-Two win, Nintendo definitely wins. But as for who will triumph in claiming second place in the console race, Microsoft or Sony.. you're going to have to look beyond the NPD tea leaves for that particular bit of wisdom. Maybe wait for what Michael Patcher has to say on the matter. He always has an interesting comment for times like these. The main takeaway comes from a Kotaku post: "Total software sales reached $654.7 million for April '08. That's a 68% boost over the previous year." On the whole, the industry is doing very well regardless of the state of our economy at the moment. As always, it's a great time to be a gamer!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mario Kart Wii

Played one, you've played 'em all

If you count both the handheld versions, then Mario Kart Wii is the sixth entry in the Mario Kart series, and I've played and enjoyed every one of them. This latest entry is no exception, but I must stress the fact that, just like Super Smash Bros Brawl, this game was meant to be played with a group of friends.

Not a lot has "evolved" this time around. All of the classic weapons are still there (annoying blue shell included). The rubber band AI is back in full swing and seems to have reached new levels of elasticity, with first-to-last and last-to-first shenanigans being the rule, not the exception. This time, the newest gameplay additions are the inclusion of bikes (that can usually corner better and have the unique ability to pull up a wheelie for slight speed boosts on straightaways) and the tricks system (where a quick flick of the wiimote during a jump adds bit of nitro upon landing).

A few things have been actually removed from the last few iterations. The move from Double Dash to Mario Kart DS took away two-characters per kart, so keeping an extra item to block incoming red shells requires an extra button hold. Also, the special character-specific unique items are gone as well. Drafting, which was introduced in the DS version makes a comeback, but noticeable gone is the traditional powerslide mechanic. You can still drift around corners, but the sparks will form automatically over time, preventing anyone from performing the infamous snaking-technique down straightaways.

The Control Schemes

Just like Super Smash Bros Brawl, this game comes with 4 different controller options, and here they are in order from best to worst:

#1 - Wiimote + Nunchuk. You press A to step on the gas, B to initiate a powerslide, Z (nunchick) to use items, the analog stick (nunchuk) to steer, and shake the wiimote to pull off tricks in the air. This control scheme gives you the ability to do everything along with the tactile feedback of traditional analog stick control. Hands down, the only way to play.

#2 /#3 - Gamecube controller/Wii Classic Controller. Both these are more or less the same as the wiimote + nunchuk combo mentioned above. The only difference is that performing tricks are activated by pressing any direction on the d-pad. The problem here is that on both these controllers, the d-pad and analog stick are used by the same finger, your left thumb, making it impossible to steer while pulling off stunts. Major oversight by the design team, in my opinion.

#4 - Wiimote + Wii Wheel (aka the Motion Wheel). Apparently, this is the recommended control method by Nintendo, since all copies of the game include the plastic shell in the box. I for one hate this control method. It makes driving equally bad for everyone, which might have been Nintendo's intention.. To set everyone on the same learning curve, no matter if you've always been a fan of the series or are starting out for the first time. And to anyone who buys additional Wii Wheel plastic shells ($9.99 each), I hope you throw your wheel into your TV screen.

Changes Needed

So it's probably too late for Nintendo to make any changes to Mario Kart Wii, but perhaps the next title can incorporate some of the following concerns I have..

- Make every power-up attack avoidable or addressable in some way. Just like you can hold a turtle shell behind you to block incoming homing red shells, why can't you block every attack somehow, at the cost of maybe an item or speed decrease. The POW Block evasion is a good example of this. When you see the POW block counting down, you can time it just right to minimize your damage by pulling off a stunt at the right moment. What if you had a Smash Bros-like block button, that would allow you to put up your shields in Mario Kart?

- Give a brief few seconds of invulnerability when you are damaged. In some ways I can tolerate the cheap attacks launched upon those at the front of the pack. The thing I can't stand are when you are continuously ass-raped for 10 seconds, by a blue shell, then a lightning bolt, then a couple red shells and then a guy running you over with a star, especially when it happens during the last leg of a race. How about giving the player immunity from damage for a few seconds after an initial attack, at least until you can build up a bit of speed to actually avoid the subsequent attacks. I could see the danger of this being used for shortcut exploits, but I'm only talking about item attacks here. You'd still be slow down when off-road and still be susceptible to falling off ledges into fiery pits.

- Group online matches by skill levels. Great Nintendo.. You actually made an online game that works (sorry, Smash Bros didn't), that has online leader boards, friend list comparison, and a decent party system. How about making it so my skill ranking doesn't fluctuate by hundreds of points each match? I understand that the system takes into account if you win over a player with a higher skill or lose to a person with a lower skill. That makes sense. But since in this game, you can go from first to last in all of five seconds, and vice versa all due to a single, well-executed item, I'd be happy if I could at least be grouped more frequently with players of a similar skill rating. This might actually be irrelevant because this game can, at times, become so random that skill and the item roulette are one and the same.

- More online options. The dev team did a great job in adding several customization options for offline multiplayer (tweaking the available powerups, adding AI opponents, etc), but these features are sorely lacking in online play. A custom-game mode would have been a nice addition to the online component here, so friends from all over could enjoy a varying selection of match-types, maybe turn off some of the more brutal items.

Just like Super Smash Bros Brawl, Wii Sports, and other Nintendo offline-multiplayer games, Mario Kart Wii makes for a great party game when friends come over, but that's probably the only time I'll ever decide to play it.

Friday, May 09, 2008


I just signed up for a Jott Account ( and I thought I'd briefly explain the what, how and why of it all. It's basically a speech-to-text web service linked to your cell phone. You record voice messages and they are automatically sent to your inbox as plain text messages. These can be great for leaving yourself friendly reminders or acting as a virtual tape recorder for those moments when an idea strikes and you're without pen and paper. The really interesting stuff comes when you start linking your other web services to this, like your Twitter account, your blog, or even your personal Google Calendar. So having a Jott account and a cell phone handy means you can post updates to almost anywhere while you're on the go, as easily as leaving a voicemail message.

I'm sure there are other more creative ways to use the service, but for right now, I'm just testing the waters and feeling the service out. I've already made a few Google Calendar events from the convenience of my own phone and they worked more or less. Most of the menus are accessed via various voice commands from the 1-866-JOTT-123 phone number. It does require a bit of online setup though, so you can't just sign up for an account and jump right in. After you link your cell number to your account, you also need to link any other web services you'd like to use as well. You can also create lists (think tags or gmail labels) and add contacts (up to 5 max) for organizing your "where" you will send the message. The first thing you're asked when you call the Jott number is who you'd like to send to.. Me? Grocery List? Reminder? Steve? Twitter? Easy enough, but remember that each of these keywords must be set up on your computer prior to you ever using them.

Sometimes after recording a message, you will have the opportunity to re-record your message or cancel it completely. Although I'm not sure why it doesn't give you this option every time, so far I've found it to come up for Google Calendar posts, but not when I'm simply sending something to myself. This can be kind of annoying if you're like me and have grown heavily reliant on the re-record button for voicemail menus. Also noticeably absent is the ability to listen to what you just recorded before posting a message. I'd actually prefer a "Microsoft Sam" type program to read back what I just said to me, but even replaying the original recording would be a nice option. I should note that the service is still in beta, so maybe these are things that are still being developed.

As for the quality of the speech-to-text itself, I've found it to be fairly reliable for the half dozen or so times I've used it. I don't know if I'd use it to post an entire blog entry (sans any post editing), but for simple notes and updates it seems to be adequate. I am a bit surprised that there isn't any way for you to fine tune the speech-to-text interpreter to your own voice. I remember using the built-in Windows application in the past and I had to spend a good 10 minutes reading to my computer like a father reading a bedtime story to his kids. It'd be nice if services like these at learn from your personal use as well (can you please make predictive typing learn my last name?), but perhaps that technology is not here quite yet. So far it's a very neat tool. We'll see if I come to rely on it more in the future.

The web operates a bit like a free market, in that if something is useful, people will use it. Simple as that.