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Disney’s Lucasfilm Acquisition Makes the Future of Star Wars Games Unclear

Star Wars Disney

The Walt Disney Company made a major acquisition this week, purchasing Lucasfilm from George Lucas in a $4.05 billion deal. Along with Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound, this puts the Star Wars brand in the control of Disney, which has already announced its intention to release a new Star Wars film trilogy, the first entry of which is scheduled to arrive in 2015. LucasArts, Lucasfilm’s videogame subsidiary best known these days for its Star Wars games, also now finds itself under the Disney banner, a move which could turn out to have a profound effect on the videogames we see coming out of it in the future.

As far as Star Wars itself goes, I find it difficult not to be at least somewhat optimistic. Most people would agree the series’ high points have come when creator George Lucas has been less hands-on — just look at The Empire Strikes Back as compared with the prequel trilogy. This new deal reduces Lucas’ role in the new films to that of a “creative consultant,” which reminds me of the honorary chairman role that the ‘Father of PlayStation,’ Ken Kutaragi, once filled. Without knowing what the new movies will be about or who will direct them, it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty how they will turn out. It’s been noted that Disney’s acquisition of Marvel resulted in this year’s excellent Joss Whedon film The Avengers, which bodes well for the future of the Star Wars films. And, as the Penny Arcade Report points out, “We have nothing to lose by Disney making more Star Wars films, and it’s not like they can get any worse.” The prequels really put the film series in a position where things can only get better from here.

Where things have generally been positive quality-wise for the Star Wars franchise, especially over the past decade-plus, is the videogame business. BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic is arguably the single best Star Wars game to-date, but there have also been many other quality titles released since 2000: the Rogue Squadron series, The Force Unleashed, the Lego games, Jedi Knight II, Battlefront II — even The Old Republic was okay, if too derivative for its own good. Going back further, you can also cite the likes of TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as examples of strong Star Wars titles. Although there have been duds in the mix, too, LucasArts has been able to deliver high-quality Star Wars videogames in the past.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

While that may remain true in the future, the manner in which we play those games could dramatically change — and in a way which is unlikely to sit well with many fans. During a conference call regarding the Lucasfilm acquisition, Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked about plans for videogames going forward. According to TechCrunch, he said the company is “likely to focus more on social and mobile than we are on console.” Gulp.

This perhaps should not come as a surprise; it fits right in with the trend we’ve seen from Disney Interactive Studios in recent years. Videogames are an important part of Disney’s future, but not necessarily in the form we typically think of them. DIS has made a concerted effort to shift from traditional, console-based games to the increasingly popular social/mobile space. It has acquired developers like Wideload Games (makers of the recent iOS title Marvel Avengers Initiative) and Tapulous (Tap Tap Revenge) while laying off staff at, and then outright shutting down, studios such as Black Rock (Pure, Split/Second) and Propaganda Games (Turok, Tron: Evolution).

Look at DIS’ website and the types of casual and mobile games it features — Where’s My Water, Where’s My Perry, Kinect Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure, Kinect Disneyland Adventures — tells the whole story. There are some exceptions to this, with DIS publishing the upcoming Epic Mickey 2 and Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, but it stands to reason that what we can count on most is seeing more of a social- and mobile-games presence from Star Wars going forward.

Iger didn’t completely rule out the possibility of non-social/mobile Star Wars games being made. In fact, he said console games would be looked at “opportunistically,” but that external studios would be used to develop such titles. In addition to those it makes itself, this is something LucasArts has done previously, turning to developers like BioWare, Pandemic, and Traveller’s Tales to develop Star Wars games. Rumors in the past have suggested LucasArts would put an end to internal development (fueled by multiple rounds of layoffs), while others said it would begin handling all development internally.

Internal development has continued in spite of all this, and LucasArts is currently at work on one of the most promising (at least visually) Star Wars games in years, Star Wars 1313. If Iger is intent on having all development of Star Wars console games handled externally, that puts 1313 and LucasArts development staff in an undesirable position. Asked about the status of the game and any others it may have in the works — last year it was hiring for an FPS, an aerial combat game, and an action-adventure game, the latter of which may be 1313 — the company told IGN, “For the time being all projects are business as usual. We are excited about all the possibilities that Disney brings.”

The qualification that statement starts out with is not the most reassuring thing in the world. Disney may very well deem it more cost-effective to rely entirely on external developers for console games, in which case it will hopefully recognize the potential 1313 has shown and allow development to continue. Epic Mickey 2 is, after all, being developed at the Disney-owned Junction Point Studios, and that may indicate Disney is not completely against the idea of internal development of non-social/mobile games. What may end up happening is development on 1313 continues but LucasArts begins to primarily rely on external developers for any future console-game development (Star Wars and otherwise), including what may be the inevitable Star Wars VII tie-in.

An interesting point that could easily be missed in all this excitement over Star Wars is the fact that LucasArts handles other properties, too. In addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, it also has a treasure trove of adventure games, including Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. It has shown some support of its adventure games in recent years between the re-release of certain titles on Steam and the revival of Monkey Island with the Special Edition releases of the first two games and the Tales of Monkey Island series.

That said, while it’s easy for gamers to not realize this acquisition means new ownership of these classic properties, it’s even more likely Disney itself will pay them little, if any, attention. It’s clear Disney sees Star Wars as the big prize in this purchase, and with its videogame ambitions focused primarily on the social/mobile space (and external development of any console games), adventure games with limited mass-market appeal are unlikely to have much of a future.

The only thing that seems clear at this point is that more Star Wars games are coming. Whether any of them end up being the sort that gamers with no interest in social or mobile games care about remains to be seen. With a renewed emphasis on delivering new movies and leveraging the Star Wars brand across the board, I would expect to see more games, not fewer, and that includes core-oriented console/PC games — it just may be that it’s up to developers like BioWare to make them happen.

By Chris Pereira

Vita Sales Continue to Struggle Post-Launch in Japan

PlayStation Vita

Following its mid-December debut in which it sold over 321,000 units (later reported to be closer to 325,000), the system has not continued to enjoy the same degree of sales success.

In its second week, the system sold 72,479 units (compared with 101,121 PlayStation Portable units and 482,200 3DS units), and now in its third week, covering December 26 through January 1, the system sold just 42,648, again trailing the PSP at 62,746 and 3DS at 197,952. These numbers come courtesy of Media Create, as reported by Andriasang, and paint a somewhat ominous picture for the system in its early days.

The software top 20 contained no Vita titles, though it’s worth pointing out that not only are many Vita games available digitally, they’re often available for cheaper on the PlayStation Store. Of course, those savings need to be weighed against the cost of the system’s proprietary memory cards, which will thankfully be cheaper than expected (though hardly cheap) upon release in the United States.

One factor that is undoubtedly helping the 3DS’ strong sales in Japan is the recent release of Monster Hunter 3G. It was the second best-selling game on the charts with 100,042 units sold (trailing Mario Kart 7′s 109,463) and is exactly the sort of game Vita needs.

Luckily for Sony, something like that might be in the works as Japanese publication Nikkei Trendy reports (via Esuteru, NeoGAF) a Monster Hunter game is coming to Vita in the second half of 2012. That would be a big deal in Japan, as it’s largely because of Monster Hunter that the PlayStation Portable has been a success in Japan. There’s no word on specifically what this game would be — Monster Hunter 4 is coming only to 3DS as of right now — but a MH of any sort would be a tremendous boon for the system.

By Chris Pereira

PlayStation Plus Prompts Me to Rethink My Xbox Live Subscription

Xbox Live PlayStation Plus

I have been an Xbox Live subscriber for the better part of the last decade. I’ve always shrugged off the suggestion that the service should be made available for free; people are more than welcome to take that position, but I’ve always been personally fine with paying. I’ve found myself rethinking that position over the last week, and a lot of that is Sony’s doing.

Since starting out as a service intent on delivering nothing more than online gaming, Xbox Live has expanded to offer a lot more — namely streaming video, streaming music, and video chat. As the number of extras has grown, the price of Xbox Live Gold has also increased from $50 per year to $60 per year. It’s worth noting deals can be had throughout the year on one-year Live subscriptions for roughly $35, so it’s not as if you’re necessarily paying the price of a new game for Live. Still, $35 is nothing to scoff at, and it’s a lot of money to pay when my needs can be taken care of elsewhere for free.

Sony’s PlayStation Network offers similar functionality without any kind of accompanying fee. It’s been argued ad nauseum whether PSN is as good as Xbox Live; it may lack features like cross-game voice chat that I appreciate on Live, but the bottom line is it offers the ability to play games online for free. It also provides access to the one streaming video service I care about most on my Xbox 360 — Netflix — without asking me to pay an additional fee on top of the Netflix subscription I’m already paying for.

PSN does offer a subscription service in PlayStation Plus; the key difference between it and Live is that it’s completely optional. It’s nothing new, having been revealed at E3 two years ago. Like Xbox Live, its original feature set has been expanded over time; in Plus’ case, it now features cloud game saves and full game trials to go along with discounts and free games. That’s all well and good, but it was an announcement during Sony’s E3 press briefing last week that makes a subscription all the more tempting. A selection of full games — not downloadable games, as are usually offered to Plus members, but full retail games — can now be downloaded by Plus members and kept for as long as their subscription is active. The dozen games available this month are mostly older titles, but there are some really good games in there including Just Cause 2, LittleBigPlanet 2, Infamous 2, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown, and Saints Row 2. This is all included in the $50 per year fee you pay for Plus.

PlayStation Plus free games

I was initially underwhelmed with the free games announcement, as rumors were swirling that Sony might announce a cloud gaming deal at E3. When something to do with that wasn’t announced as a Plus feature, I felt Sony had failed to offer a killer new reason to subscribe to Plus. Upon further reflection, the free games are a solid offering on top of everything Plus already had. The cynics can say this is nothing more than a way of gaining access to titles people didn’t feel strongly enough about to buy when they were first released; my counter would be to ask who can buy every game worth playing these days. This is a nice opportunity to catch up on some quality titles you may have missed the first time around, and it’s something completely absent from Xbox Live.

Why I bring this up is because, for a similar amount of money as I pay for Xbox Live, I can get the core functionality of what I need — online gaming and Netflix streaming — in addition to a variety of free games and discounts on others. Microsoft can run down the list of other features I can only get on Xbox Live, like Twitter or Last.fm or demos (locked away to Gold members when any PSN member can often get them for free) or any number of other entertainment options, but the reality of the matter is I rarely make use of any of them. I play games online, I watch Netflix, and that’s about it. There is also the issue of advertisements — the Xbox Live dashboard is littered with them despite my Xbox Live subscription. The PlayStation 3′s XMB, while less attractive in my opinion, is free of ads for things I couldn’t care less about.

Having said all of this, it’s not as easy to cut the cord with Xbox Live as I would like. Multiplatform single-player games would be easy to start playing on PS3 (or, better yet, PC), as Achievements don’t matter to me like they once did. What isn’t so easy is dealing with other games. As far as exclusives go, Halo 4 is one of my most anticipated games of the year and I know I’m going to want to play it online. Multiplatform multiplayer games are something I’ve almost always purchased on 360 because that’s where my friends are. Like trying to get into a new MMO and losing interest because my friends are still playing World of Warcraft, the idea of leaving behind my many friends on Live for the few I have on PSN is not an enticing one.

I understand the rationale for why Microsoft continues to charge for Live — if it can get away with it, there is no good reason to give up that enormous revenue stream if hardware sales are doing well. I also get why features like Netflix, ESPN, and company are kept exclusive to Gold members; were those features suddenly made free, you can bet I would not be the only one questioning what it is I’m paying for. It’s also not difficult to imagine Xbox Live subscriptions being used as the basis for a subsidized version of Microsoft’s next console, something the company is currently experimenting with, no doubt with the intention of taking things a step further with the so-called Xbox 720.

None of these business realities makes me any more interested in paying for Gold, though. Once I’ve had my fill of Halo 4 and my subscription runs out early next year, I can certainly see myself dumping Live after a nine- or ten-year run, at least until the 360′s successor comes along. And if that, too, ends up featuring a dashboard slathered in advertising and offering no compelling reason for me to pay for a subscription while the competition is giving me free games for that same money, I might never come back.

By Chris Pereira

Naughty Dog’s Co-Founder Could be THQ’s Savior

Jason Rubin

As it prepares to make a move to avoid a NASDAQ delisting, THQ yesterday announced some changes to its executive team. Core Games EVP Danny Bilson, who has helped to push the publisher in its current direction of focusing on wholly-owned IP is leaving the company along with Core Studios SVP Dave Davis. While Bilson’s departure could have been a bad sign for those who view THQ’s direction as promising, the newly-appointed president of THQ is someone who knows his games: Jason Rubin, the former co-founder of Naughty Dog, has assumed the role effective immediately.

THQ is not in great shape, due in large part to the failure of the high-definition versions of uDraw released last fall. Layoffs have struck the company in the past year, and back in January it was rumored that its slate of 2014 games had been canceled. This turned out to be untrue, although since then we have learned its Warhammer MMO, Dark Millennium Online, will be converted into a more traditional style of game, and that it is trying to sell off Devil’s Third, the game from Tomonobu Itagaki’s new studio Valhalla Game Studios.

Its stock price has been dwindling for years; in 2007 its share price topped $36, a monumental difference from its current $.63 price that threatens to see the company’s common stock delisted from the NASDAQ Global Market. The company needs the value of its stock to reach at least $1.00 for 10 consecutive days to avoid this fate. (The current plan appears to be a reverse stock split, which will see the number of shares in existence reduced, thereby increasing the value of what stock remains.) Matters weren’t helped when it announced earlier this month that, despite an increase in revenues, its losses grew in the 2012 fiscal year.

THQ logo

While Rubin being named president did not have a significant effect on the value of THQ’s stock, his appointment does bode well for the future. Along with Andy Gavin, Rubin founded Naughty Dog in 1986. He was a key player at the company for nearly two decades, helping to create the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series before leaving in 2004 (three years after Naughty Dog was acquired by SCEA). Since then he has worked on comics and was a co-founder of Flektor, a tool allowing people to mashup various web content.

As THQ president, he will report to Brian Farrell, who remains the CEO and chairman, and will be in charge of worldwide product development, marketing, and publishing operations, giving him a lot of influence over what sort of games we’ll be seeing THQ’s name on in the coming years. His influence might not be greatly felt as far as which games we see come out short-term, both because cash is expected to be tight and because the wheels are already in motion for games coming out in the near future: Darksiders II, Saints Row: The Third – Enter the Dominatrix, Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light, South Park: The Game, and WWE ’13. Further out, THQ still has Insane from Guillermo Del Toro, Homefront 2 from Crytek UK, and a new franchise from former Assassin’s Creed creative director Patrice Désilets.

Given Naughty Dog’s track record with Rubin in charge, he is likely to be a major advocate for the direction THQ is headed in of focusing on wholly-owned IP and shying away from kids’ licensed games and products like uDraw. Merely saying a company wants to focus on those kinds of core games is one thing; Rubin, having seen what it takes to establish a successful franchise more than once, should be a major asset in identifying the ideas that can help to bring THQ back into the black. (Maybe he’ll find a way to revive Red Faction like, say, bringing it back outdoors.) Even with the new franchises that have already been green-lighted, like Désilets/THQ Montreal’s new game and Insane, his expertise could come in handy in ensuring those games turn into something special, rather than seeing another repeat of Homefront.

By Chris Pereira

Winter of RPGs Brings Chrono Cross, FFV, and FFVI to PSN

Chrono Cross

Three Square Enix RPGs have been given firm (re-)release dates on the PlayStation Network. While none of them come as a surprise thanks to ESRB leaks from earlier in the year, fans should be excited about the chance to play this selection of classic titles on PS3, PSN, and (starting next year) Vita.

Square Enix is labeling these three releases as the Winter of RPGs campaign. Despite what the name would suggest, you won’t have to wait for winter to officially begin to start playing any of them — in fact, all three will be out weeks before winter even begins.

First up is Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger. It was originally released on PlayStation 1 in 2000 and never made it to any other platforms, unlike its predecessor, which you can find on SNES, PS1, DS, Virtual Console, and PlayStation Network. Cross will be available on PSN this coming Tuesday, November 8.

Next up is Final Fantasy V. It stars Bartz Klauser, a character whom newcomers to the series (or those who never played the game as a result of the 16-bit version never coming to the U.S.) may only recognize from Dissidia: Final Fantasy. Its release is scheduled for November 22. Unlike Cross, where there are essentially no alternatives, you may be better off with the Game Boy Advance version, Final Fantasy V Advance, if you have the portable handy.

The last of the three is Final Fantasy VI, better known to many westerners as Final Fantasy III. The GBA or SNES versions may be the preferable way to go, but for those who want to play it on a more modern system, it’ll be out on PSN on December 6.

By Chris Pereira

Sony Denies Vita Losing Support Among Japanese Developers

PlayStation Vita

A worrying quote emerged in Japanese publication Nikkei this week suggesting developers in Japan were dropping plans for Vita development in favor of 3DS. With Vita already in the hands of many gamers thanks to the First Edition bundle and others preparing to pick up the system at its proper launch next week, this isn’t the sort of news you like to hear just before or after spending $250 or more on an unproven piece of hardware. Sony is, as expected, trying to downplay the report and as it was only a single anonymous quote, there’s no reason to become overly concerned just yet.

“Major Japanese companies are canceling all projects intended for the Vita and are changing development to the 3DS,” the anonymous source said, per a translation by Gamasutra. There isn’t much ambiguity in the statement, which is said to be from a member of the Japanese development community. The article itself was authored by Kiyoshi Shin, the former head of the International Game Developers Association’s Japan branch.

“I did not see that quote, but you see extremist quotes like that all the time,” said Sony Worldwide Studios senior VP Scott Rohde in an interview with Gamasutra. “I mean, obviously, there is no way anyone could stand in front of a camera and say that all developers are changing focus from one platform to another, no matter what it is.”

Rohde said he had not heard of such a trend happening among developers with Vita games in the pipeline, adding that he believes what the quote suggested to be “largely exaggerated. I know many, many, many third party developers and publishers are feverishly working on Vita titles, not just for now, but for the foreseeable future.” He compared it to situations in the past where it was presumed every developer would abandon core game development in favor of social titles for Facebook or casual iOS titles.

There are certainly things Sony could be doing better with Vita, but as the system remains unavailable to the vast majority of the potential market for it, Sony is right not to panic so soon.

It is easy to see why a quote like this could gain traction, though, especially in light of the consistently low sales of Vita in Japan. The system had its poorest performance yet during the week of February 6, selling only 13,939 units according to Media Create data. 3DS led the way in terms of hardware sales with 67,558 units sold, and even the PSP topped Vita once again with 15,860 sold. The problem over there is a lack of games appealing to the Japanese market; Uncharted is a big deal in the west, but not so much to the Monster Hunter lovers in Japan. Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida even admitted this was the case earlier in the week.

Additionally, a number of major retailers in Australia will not be selling the Vita at launch. K-Mart, Target, and Big W (not a nickname for Walmart, believe it or not) all will go without it initially, with the latter two possibly stocking it at a “later date,” Kotaku reports. “For the launch of PlayStation Vita in Australia, with the specific target market being the active gamer we have chosen to launch the console with a focused retail channel strategy across national specialist game and specialist technology retailers,” said Sony in a statement, although it is unclear how much say Sony actually had in the matter.

At this point we don’t have a clear idea of what Vita games are coming following the so-called launch window beyond a few examples (a BioShock title, plus the HD Collections of Metal Gear Solid and Zone of the Enders), making it difficult to know what may have been canceled in favor of 3DS games. The suggestion could cause some prospective Vita buyers to pass on the system at launch and continue hoping for a price drop, and that alone could be reason for Sony to push forward the announcements of some Vita titles currently in development.

By Chris Pereira

More Obscure Game Re-Releases Could Result From ESRB’s Free Digital Ratings

ESRB

The Entertainment Software Rating Board faces a difficult task in assigning ratings to digital games, one not about to be made any easier on it by game makers. Setting aside the matter of increasing complexity of these titles, the number of digital releases continues to grow at a strong pace. In order to keep up, the ESRB last year announced it would begin making use of an automated system for assigning ratings to downloadable games. This week it took things a step further by making this service available to developers for free, a move that could have more of an effect than simply reducing development costs.

Downloadable games released for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network (including Vita), the 3DS eShop, the Wii Shop Channel, Windows 8, and PlayStation Certified devices are among those covered by this initially, with others to be added in the future, including streaming services. The new ratings also provide additional information on things like the presence of location sharing and player interaction. The idea is to ensure ESRB ratings, which are the most recognizable ratings for videogames in the United States and Canada, are more widely adopted as digital games are delivered more and more often on platforms that otherwise might not use them.

No doubt the ESRB would like to expand to iOS and Android devices, something it was unable to do with the launch of a voluntary rating system it developed (PDF) for mobile platforms along with the CTIA last year. Neither Apple nor Google has shown any interest in adopting ESRB ratings, instead preferring to use their own setups. Whether this change makes them any more likely to change their minds remains to be seen, but it certainly can’t hurt the ESRB’s case.

Besides the mobile implications, this is great news for developers, publishers, and gamers. Receiving a rating in the past has not been as simple as shipping a copy of a game off to the ESRB and waiting to hear back. The process was more resource-intensive than many people realize, and it’s a burden that comes at the worst possible time.

“Securing an ESRB rating has been a fairly time intensive process in the past that requires developers to fill out a detailed form, capture game videos, and send over the game’s script with all content highlighted that could be perceived as offensive,” Double Fine Productions’ Greg Rice explained.

Assigning people to gather these materials costs money, and it’s important that it’s done right or else the company could be out even more money.

“Due to financial penalties that can be issued if this information is not accurate it is very important that developers take their time and capture everything that is necessary,” Rice said. “Unfortunately, this usually isn’t possible until very late in the development cycle meaning effort is being directed to the ratings submission that could be focused on the game during its most critical phase. It’s great to hear the ESRB is taking action to streamline this process.”

Graham Markay, vice president of operations for Harvest Moon publisher Natsume, called the new ratings system “fantastic.” He said, “It is extremely quick and easy, provided that the digital game you are rating doesn’t have any content issues that would make you use the Long Form rating.” Not having to submit video makes things “very cost effective for digital games,” which “allows no slowdown in the software submission phase.”

In addition to the inherent cost of that process, there was also the issue of the fee required to obtain a rating that is now being waived. Although this is no issue for big-budget games, it can present a serious hurdle for developers of smaller games — particularly those trying to bring re-releases of classic games to platforms such as Virtual Console.

“In the console space this actually is a great development for Virtual Console-style products and for new, digital-only console releases moving forward,” Gaijinworks founder Vic Ireland told 1UP. “When we were making a list of Sunsoft releases when I consulted for them a few years ago, a number of the Virtual Console titles weren’t going to make the cut just because of the ESRB fees required to put them up, and that was back when a small-budget rating was still less than $1,000. After it became more than four times as much, the ESRB priced themselves out of the digital-only marketplace, and that market is now moving at breakneck speed.”

More recently, Ireland’s work at Gaijinworks has been centered around trying to bring classic games to modern platforms, among them the first three Arc the Lad titles, Alundra, and Vanguard Bandits, all of which can be downloaded from the PlayStation Store. These games and other, similar titles fans would like to see re-released are not the sort expected to sell hundreds of thousands of units, meaning the relatively high cost of obtaining a rating can be a serious impediment for getting them released.

“We’ve also had this conversation many times over the past year or so between ourselves and MonkeyPaw as well,” Ireland continued, referring to MonkeyPaw Games, a frequent partner of Gaijinworks that specializes in re-releasing classic games. “The rating pricing for relatively small digital releases cannot be priced like a title that pushes 100k, 250k, or more units.”

In effect, dropping the fee means developers now have one less obstacle to deal with in trying to work out the logistics of getting a little-known game out.

“A lower-priced digital tier was necessary for the ESRB to stay relevant, but this free rating is actually a very nice surprise,” he said. “It removes artificial barriers to getting more content of older titles up on PSN, and should result in more of the older obscure/hard-to-find/never-released-in-English titles being licensed and released digitally.”

Considering the ESRB is a non-profit organization, it was a sensible decision to drop the fee now that the cost involved with assigning ratings to digital games has been drastically reduced. Ireland describes the move as a “win-win for [the] ESRB because it gets the brand out there more widely and for console consumers because they will have access to ultra-niche titles that would not have been put up under the old pricing.”

Gamers shouldn’t expect any immediate results, as it takes time for these re-releases to come together. This does, however, bode well for the potential re-release of classic games, particularly the more obscure sort that would have had difficulty selling enough to justify the cost.

“Plus the ESRB digital rating is a bonus since 11-year-old males can immediately know which games to buy — they can just look for the ‘M,’” Ireland joked. “It’s a big hassle for them when they have to research which action game has the most verboten stuff they crave.”

By Chris Pereira

Sony Continues to Expand Its Strong Digital Sales Push

PSN October 2012 deal

After last year’s PlayStation Network breach, some questioned whether Sony could regain the confidence of PSN users. Surely anyone in their right mind wouldn’t dare to buy anything from PSN or trust it with their personal information, some said. Yet here we are, not even two years later, and PSN sales are higher than ever before. Not only that, but Sony is doing the best job of any platform holder to encourage users to spend money on their online service.

Sony Computer Entertainment America’s Jack Buser recently shared some impressive facts about PSN sales with Joystiq. In the quarter spanning April through June, PSN saw more content sold than during any other quarter since the service’s launch. On a similarly positive note for Sony, “membership sales in PS Plus almost doubled” during E3 week in June.

The latter point is really no surprise. Prior to E3, PlayStation Plus had been a nice service if you spent a lot of money on PSN (because of the discounts it offered on select content) or were desperate for cloud storage. $50 per year was a lot of money for some people — agree with the decision or not, restricting online multiplayer to Xbox Live Gold subscribers makes that service have some real weight to it. Plus had no such feature to hang its hat on.

What changed at E3 was the announcement of the ‘Instant Game Collection.’ Instantaneously, Plus went from offering discounts, automatic downloads, cloud storage, and access to the occasional beta to providing a variety of free downloadable games. And these weren’t merely some second-rate, budget-priced downloadable games being given away: among those offered since June have been LittleBigPlanet 2, Infamous 2, Just Cause 2, Borderlands, Starhawk’s single-player, and Outland. This week, NFL Blitz is being added.

By and large, the games haven’t been especially new ones (Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown being one exception), although newly released downloadable titles are frequently discounted for Plus members. And while it’s true you don’t get to keep these free games permanently, you do retain access to them for as long as you’re a Plus member. Considering the price of renting games, it’s not a bad deal.

With all of this in mind, it should be no surprise that Plus has taken off with the addition of games. Speaking on this same subject, Buser told VentureBeat Sony arrived at a simple conclusion: “Gamers want games.”

PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection

“In retrospect, it seems like, yeah, of course. Gamers love games,” he said. “But we came to that conclusion through a mountain of data, and we really landed on this idea that not only are we going to put free games on the service, but we’re going to put great free games on the service.”

While it might be a bit puzzling that it took such extensive research to reach what is sure to seem like common sense to many of us, the important thing is Sony now has a good grasp on what people want from Plus.

Likewise, it’s showing at least some signs that it knows what people want from digital content in general. In certain cases, like with Wipeout DLC and Sound Shapes, it’s allowing that content to be accessed from both PlayStation 3 and Vita systems. Last week it announced the PSN Day One Digital program, which will see many of October’s biggest retail games released on PSN at the same time they show up in stores. Some of those games can even be had at a 10 percent discount — a deal that, along with the convenience inherent with downloadable games, might be able to make up for the inability to later sell or trade those games like you could physical copies. As I said at the time, I believe the ability to pre-load these games would make this an even more attractive option, and hopefully, in time, that’s something that we see introduced.

For the time being, it is offering something that makes the Day One Digital program, in particular, even more interesting. Similar to a promotion launched last October, anyone who spends $100 on PSN content during the month of October will receive a $20 voucher in November. The offer is not restricted to Plus members and applies to any of the Day One Digital games you might have already pre-ordered. Considering the freedom of what you can purchase — a PlayStation Plus subscription and NFL Sunday Ticket are mentioned by name on the PlayStation Blog — this is an especially great deal. If nothing else, it makes the Day One Digital games that much more tempting. If you want to pretend as if the voucher counts toward what you buy this month rather than a future purchase, you would be able to get, say, NBA 2K13 and Dishonored for only $88.

Without a doubt, there is still more Sony can do to even further improve PSN sales — by adding the aforementioned pre-loading and giving the PlayStation Store the redesign it needs, for instance — but what’s important is it’s continuing to take steps in the right direction.

By Chris Pereira

Army Corps of Hell is a Vita Launch Title in North America

More Army Corps of Hell Videos

The Pikmin-like Army Corps of Hell will be available alongside the PlayStation Vita when the system is launched in North America next year.

In addition to announcing an HD remake of Final Fantasy X and action-RPG Lords of Apocalypse during its TGS press conference, Square Enix revealed the Vita-exclusive Army Corps. It’s been further detailed since then; it’s being developed by Entersphere which previously worked on web and social games in the past. In the game, the “King of Hell” has his powers removed and gets booted from his position. He takes control of a group of goblins which you’ll control throughout the game as he attempts to regain his throne. You won’t have to help him alone, either, thanks to support for four-player ad-hoc multiplayer.

Army Corps of Hell

As we don’t know exactly when Vita is launching in North America, Square Enix wasn’t able to provide an actual date for when the game will be out here. Vita will be out on December 17 in Japan and early 2012 in North America and Europe.

Army Corps will also be a launch title in Japan, where it will cost 4,980 yen ($65) as a physical game and 3,990 yen ($52) as a downloadable title. It’s not the only Vita game to be offered at a discount on PSN, but as with all of the Vita game prices we’ve heard about so far, they are not indicative of what you can expect to pay elsewhere.

By Chris Pereira

PlayStation Boss Kaz Hirai to Become Sony’s President – Report

Kaz Hirai

The former president of Sony Computer Entertainment, Kaz Hirai, may soon be taking on the role of president once again, only this time it will be for the entirety of Sony.

According to Japanese publication Nikkei (as reported by Mashable) Hirai will soon be promoted to the role of president of Sony Corporation, a position he may assume as soon as this April. Current president Howard Stringer would vacate the role but continue on as CEO and chairman.

Hirai was promoted to the chairman role of Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. last year, leaving Andrew House to assume his former job as president and CEO of SCEI.

It is widely believed that, when the time comes for Stringer to step down as CEO, it is Hirai’s position to lose. “He’s in pole position to head the whole company, so he needs to focus on that, which is probably why they sought out a successor for the videogames business,” Mizuho Investors’ Securities analyst Nobuo Kurahashi said last summer.

Sony has yet to confirm this latest round of changes, but it’s certainly good news for the 51-year-old Hirai, who has worked for Sony for roughly half of his life. He started out in 1984 working for what would become Sony Music Entertainment Japan before joining up with Sony’s U.S. videogame division, Sony Computer Entertainment America, in 1995.

To gamers who don’t follow the executive shuffle, he’s likely the man best known for conducting portions of Sony E3 press conferences past, including the infamous Ridge Racer incident in 2006 which, amazingly, is the first result to come up on YouTube when searching for “Ridge Racer.”

By Chris Pereira