Mind Games: Let’s get down to business

Jan. 27, 2012, 12:59 a.m.
Mind Games: Let's get down to business
Courtesy of BioWare

A couple weeks ago, I laid out a handful of predictions for the year ahead. We’re far enough into January that this second batch is inexcusably late, but hey…I also predict that you’ll need a few homework extensions before this quarter is over. Don’t judge.


“BioWare” gets more money and less love

Despite a long history as one of the industry’s most consistently impressive studios, BioWare is on notice for a lot of fans this year. Some of that criticism is fair; some of it isn’t. The developer’s owner, Electronic Arts, seems to be aware that BioWare’s name moves units like crazy and is slapping it on as many studios as possible–it isn’t long before “BioWare Tiburon” brings us Madden DLC. That puts BioWare’s core fans, already somewhat alienated by the less-than-stellar “Dragon Age 2” and a perplexing “Command & Conquer” reveal, in the unusual position of not really knowing what the studio’s name means (hence the somewhat cryptic quotation marks in the subhead above). That will continue in 2012. “Star Wars: The Old Republic” will become a cash cow despite underwhelming many MMO fans (it’s Star Wars, and that’s enough), “Dragon Age 3” won’t please anybody as BioWare attempts to please each of the disparate but sizeable fan bases from the franchise’s first two entries and “Mass Effect” fans will continue to complain about the finale’s inclusion of multiplayer. The dilution of the BioWare name is subjective in some ways and deserved in others, but either way, a lot of people are going to take it off their list of favorite developers this year.


Mind Games: Let's get down to business
Courtesy of Nintendo

3DS Quickies

Three dimensions. Three predictions.


The 3DS will continue its phoenix-like ascent out of mediocrity. Did you know it’s outpacing first-year Wii and DS sales, at 4 million units since last March? (Yes, that’s mostly because of last summer’s outrageously massive price cut.) Expect a rollout of big announcements in June–and as long as I’m going out on limbs, I’ll say the 3DS sells a cool 8 million units worldwide.


The 3DS’s inevitable hardware redesign will come before long, but not in 2012. The most compelling feature of said update would be a built-in right circle pad, but given Nintendo’s lack of enthusiasm for its ugly, Gamestop-exclusive add-on, it doesn’t seem like they’re very keen on making dual analog control a ubiquitous standard on 3DS anytime soon.


Nintendo will announce a new Metroid game on 3DS. My money’s on a return to the series’ 2D roots…and when I say “2D,” of course, I’m talking about the plane of Samus’ movement, not the way the graphics are rendered. Parallax for the win! At the risk of taking wild guesses, I’ll go ahead and say that whatever Metroid project Nintendo unveils this year will be handled by Texas-based Retro Studios. Team Ninja’s controversial take on the franchise wasn’t a complete debacle, but Nintendo knows that another left-of-center take on Metroid could irreparably sully the franchise’s good name. In the meantime, Retro has shown it can take Nintendo’s most treasured franchises–Metroid, Donkey and Mario Kart–and add Western sensibilities without tarnishing what makes them so special.


A Vita(l) Year for Sony

Ah, the PlayStation Vita. I’ve been avoiding this one until the end, and I’ll probably have to sit down for a more extended piece to parse out my thoughts. I really can’t get a good read on the Vita. Like most Sony products, it’s an incredibly appealing set of hardware–the OLED screen is by all accounts gorgeous, and Sony’s finally giving us a handheld with two analog sticks, along with a staggering amount of control options, social features, online integration, and so on. (Okay, yeah. On paper, it’s sexy as hell and looks appealing at $250.) But like every platform launch in history–the 3DS may be the most relevant offender in this case–it takes killer software to move units.


That’s where the Vita runs into the biggest problem Sony Computer Entertainment has wrestled with since it was founded in 1993: it has solid franchises everywhere, but no true blockbusters. Sony can ship off a few million copies of “Uncharted,” “God of War” or “Gran Turismo” with no problem, but it rarely breaks through with Halos or Marios.


Sure, the Vita will launch with eye-poppers and critic-pleasers like “Gravity Rush,” “Little Deviants” and “Uncharted: Golden Abyss.” But the 3DS has “Mario Kart 7,” a game you’ll still see on sales charts in 2013. And in Japan, the only market where the Vita is currently available, Nintendo just happened to secure a 3DS-exclusive “Monster Hunter” title that released just before Sony’s new handheld did, undoubtedly contributing to the Vita’s poor first-week sales, which clocked in at about 500,000.


Of course, that’s ignoring the elephant in the room. Whether Sony admits it or not, the Vita will have to provide compelling reason for Joe iPhone to carry an extra screen in his pocket. Considering that last year’s total 3DS sales failed to match the number of iOS devices activated on Dec. 25 alone, it’s clearly an uphill battle for both companies. The 3DS is turning around, like most Nintendo systems, with the just-in-time arrival of excellent first-party software. In America, at least, Vita won’t have that advantage. If I had to take a stand on it, I’d say that Sony will be seriously rethinking its handheld strategy 12 months from now.

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