Games – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mario is Mobile!: Or (Nintendo’s Platform Panic?) Fri, 20 Mar 2015 15:18:33 +0000 MarioIsMobileWithin the context of video game culture, Nintendo’s corporate identity has been clear: Nintendo makes games. Whereas competitors Sony and Microsoft represent larger global technology corporations in which gaming is but one portfolio among many, Nintendo has distinguished itself through its singular focus on its home and handheld gaming consoles and making games exclusively for them.

In recent years, part of this identity has become Nintendo’s resistance to the convergence of gaming and mobile technologies. Despite consistent analyst and investor pressure for Nintendo to take advantage of the explosion of gaming on phones and tablets to help offset a downturn in console performance, Nintendo resisted, with President and CEO Satoru Iwata going as far to suggest in 2013 that “If we think 20 years down the line, we may look back at the decision not to supply Nintendo games to smartphones and think that is the reason why the company is still here.”

It was therefore surprising when Nintendo announced a partnership with Japanese mobile platform developer DeNA to move into the mobile gaming space. There had been no warning that Nintendo’s philosophy on this issue had changed, even at a recent investor briefing in Tokyo. Suddenly, Nintendo has plans to have games available for mobile platforms by the end of the year, with Mario, Link, and other Nintendo characters in games competing with the likes of Clash of Clans and Game of War. While initial speculation questioned if Nintendo would play any type of development role, or if their biggest franchises would be involved, when the dust settled it was clear: developers at Nintendo are at work creating mobile games utilizing a limitless range of Nintendo IPs, which DeNA will make available across a wide range of platforms.


The gameplay of the Fire Emblem series—and other Strategy RPGs from developer Intelligent Systems—is a logical fit for touch-screen gaming.

There is no shortage of response to this news: indeed, the level of mainstream press engagement with Nintendo’s decision reveals the degree to which Nintendo franchises have the potential to do extremely well in the mobile space. Within the gaming enthusiast press, meanwhile, sites immediately began speculating on what franchises would be a great fit for mobile gaming, imagining games like the Strategy RPG Fire Emblem as perfect fits for the mobile space. However, at the same time, others—like WIRED’s Chris Kohler—pointed out that those imagining a game like Fire Emblem on mobile platforms are overlooking the realities of mobile gaming, and that Nintendo is more likely to develop streamlined F2P (Free to Play) games that cost less to make, have endless revenue potential, and don’t directly compete with Nintendo’s existing handheld games (like an upcoming Fire Emblem title set to release on Nintendo 3DS later this year).

Nintendo, for their part, is remaining vague. The announcement notably came without the reveal of a single mobile game, and in a feature interview with TIME Iwata offered little detail regarding Nintendo’s specific plans beyond the fact that “we believe that we will be able to use smart devices in a very unique way so that they can be a bridge to our dedicated game systems, and at the same time, that we will be able to deliver unique experiences to the users of smart devices.” When pushed on the types of payment models, Iwata was similarly cagey, leaving the door open for “free-to-start” games —a term less common than “free-to-play,” and most recently associated with “Full Game Demos” on consoles—while simultaneously noting that “it’s even more important for us to consider how we can get as many people around the world as possible to play Nintendo smart device apps, rather than to consider which payment system will earn the most money.”

Nintendo's relationship to licensed mobile gaming could be previewed by a Mario-themed version of iOS title Puzzle & Dragons, which developer GungHo is bringing to Nintendo's 3DS later this year.

Nintendo’s relationship to licensed mobile gaming could be previewed by a Mario-themed version of iOS title Puzzle & Dragons, which developer GungHo is bringing to Nintendo’s 3DS later this year.

Here, I would argue, we see the inherent tension in Nintendo’s announcement. The reason no games were announced is because this is a business decision as opposed to a gaming one. Nintendo is effectively licensing their IPs onto mobile devices as a way of extending their franchises to new audiences—Iwata’s emphasis on global reach makes clear that this decision is about using the proliferation of mobile devices as a new awareness platform, with no plans to port existing games onto the systems (which has been a pattern for other game creators like Final Fantasy developer Square Enix). In this way, it is framed similarly to an animated film deal Nintendo was allegedly pursuing with Sony (as revealed in the midst of 2014’s Sony Hack), with mobile devices less a new gaming platform—signaling Nintendo abandoning exclusively developing for its own hardware platforms—than a new way of leveraging and promoting existing IP. This business decision was well-received, with Nintendo stock leaping 27% following the announcement.

At the same time, though, Nintendo is still committed to games. And so while from a business perspective it would make sense for Nintendo to treat mobile as a space of licensing, with other developers creating games using its franchises, the company’s larger commitment to being a “game company” doesn’t allow them to do so. In addition to announcing Nintendo’s next piece of hardware—Project NX—to renew their commitment to their own platforms, Iwata is promising Nintendo’s innovation will extend to mobile gaming, telling TIME that “while we want more people to become familiar with Nintendo IP through Nintendo’s smart device game apps, at the same time, we aim to provide smart device consumers with unique experiences with our game apps.”

Whether or not Nintendo can transform licensed mobile gaming into a space of innovation remains to be seen, but for now discursive transformation is the next best thing. Nintendo needs to acknowledge the evolution of mobile gaming as a threat against their existing handheld gaming business, but they are doing so in ways that frame mobile gaming as a lesser space that Nintendo needs to elevate, and which exists to compliment—rather than threaten—existing distribution models. The long-term tenability of this position remains unclear, but the increased mobility of Mario and the rest of Nintendo’s brand is set to give us our answer.


Redefining “Public” Education: Reflections from GeekGirlCon, Seattle, October 11-12 Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:00:36 +0000 GGC-Logo-2013

We have been to three girl-focused cons this summer and fall: LeakyCon, DashCon and GeekGirlCon. These cons are non-profit, largely run by volunteers, and provide alternative geeky spaces to male-dominated cons. These cons extend the work of social media such as Tumbr by providing safe public spaces where feminist, feminine, and queer young people can gather to create communities that validate and encourage creative play, fannish passion, and critical thinking. The cons devote a great deal of attention to social inequalities faced by women, intersecting issues of sexism with racism, homophobia, classism, and related biases regarding ability, religion, educational level, and cultural capital. The socially critical content of these cons have demonstrated to me that we need to redefine what we mean by  “public” education. The organizers and participants of these cons are fashioning their own liberal arts education spaces. Many of the young panelists at GeekGirlCon made the point that they learned about feminist criticism, intersectionality, and social inequities from social media and at cons, not from the traditional public education system.

The role of social media and these types of cons as sites of critical thinking, community building, and social justice training for women has become increasingly urgent, most recently demonstrated by the nationally publicized attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of video games on social media. Sarkeesian represents this new kind of public educator who seeks to make her work democratically accessible, and she was GeekGirlCon’s opening speaker. GGC hired extra security for the death threats that immediately followed the announcement of her appearance, but the attacks against her, like the more recent threats surrounding her at the Utah State University, were not only leveled at Sarkeesian but at her audiences. The GeekGirlCon hashtag (#GGC14) on Twitter was taken over by Sarkeesian trolls, and any attendee who tweeted in support of Sarkeesian or used the #GGC14 hashtag also received threatening messages directed at them, individually. As numerous panelists and attendees made clear, anyone with a feminine-perceived username is the recipient of hate on many social media platforms.

GeekGirlCon Anita Sarkeesian Tweet

It is vital, therefore, that we view Sarkeesian’s work and the hostility directed at her as not an anomaly, but part of the greater structural misogyny and inequity embedded in and perpetuated by American public institutions. Public education largely does not address social inequalities and erases many identity categories (LGBTQA and transgender most obviously in k-12). There is virtually no sex or rape culture education in schools. Humanities and creative arts programs are increasingly marginalized at both k-12 and college-levels. Career counseling, networking, leadership training – particularly for women and social minorities seeking to enter fields dominated by white men – is generally unavailable.  It is not surprising that feminized spaces such as these cons and select social media sites have become so important to young people; we have heard countless testimonials to this fact from young women at every con.

This was GeekGirlCon’s fourth year, and it has grown in both programming and attendance, with an estimated 7,000 participants this year. GGC is distinguished by its localism. Like other cons, GGC has a robust year-round social media presence but unlike them, GGC is based in Seattle and is able to foster relationships with local schools, industries and businesses and maintain a community presence throughout the year; in this way, the convention itself can be viewed as a catalyst that brings the local community together but also facilitates an extension of its female-centered space.

Used with permission

Used with permission

The age range of attendees at GGC was broad, from pre-teens to women in their 20s and 30s; many children were accompanied by their parents, and thus there were more men than at other Cons. In addition, although GGC encouraged cosplay and devoted panels to fangirl topics such as feminist media criticism and slash, GGC addressed other aspects of the term “geek.” For example, GGC highlighted women’s role in the sciences and offered a DIY “Science Zone,” where attendees were guided through experiments by female science educators. GGC also offered several workshops, booths, and panels that addressed professional career and networking strategies and opportunities for women and girls, particularly those seeking to enter technology, engineering, and science fields. Local industries and educators who support GGC’s mission offered career advice and support.

Panelists continually noted the importance of “finding a support group of other women” for any career pursuit. Indeed, some of the most interesting career discussion came from a new generation of female media journalists. They spoke of their experiences negotiating a media landscape in which their feminist critical perspectives and knowledge of fan cultures were not always welcome by editors and their published work often provoked gender-based hate. At the same time, these fangirls emphasized the importance of the fan community as a resource and support, and they encouraged attendees to draw on the skills they have learned as fans –writing, editing, graphic design, media analysis – in building their careers. One particularly popular and insightful panel on this topic is linked below.

“M from Feels to Skills panel”

GeekGirlCon also distinguished itself by holding two panels explicitly devoted to fat identity and resources. The “Fatness & Fandom” panelists represented a range of fat body types and was also the most racially diverse panel that I (Jen) attended at GGC. Fat fans spoke of being snubbed and erased by manufacturers of geeky clothing, a hot topic within plus-size communities because of the lack of availability of well-made, fashionable plus-size clothes. This panel was a great example of the local presence at GGC, composed of members of PNW Fattitude, a meetup group for fat women in the Pacific Northwest. Taking part in this panel allowed the group to leverage the larger voice of GGC to spread awareness of issues that fat fans face and to allow more people to learn about the group itself. Following the event, panelists invited attendees to an in-person meetup across the street. PNW Fattitude thus allowed attendees to see successful example of sustainable community at GGC.

This article by Allison McCracken was research and written with the help of Jen Kelly.


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#gamergate Thu, 25 Sep 2014 13:30:29 +0000 GamerGateIf you do not follow the gaming press, visit popular videogame blogs, read 4chan, or scan Reddit, you may not have heard about the latest barrage of abuse and harassment targeting, yet again, women in the games industry. Even if you do casually follow the aforementioned online spaces, you still may not be entirely sure what #gamergate represents, although the story has now been picked up by mainstream press outlets like Forbes, Slate, and The New Yorker. This brief Antenna post is not an encouragement to dive down a very ugly rabbit hole. In fact, it would be great if we all could collectively ignore the Internet’s current pitchfork mob for a little while, filtering anything related to #gamergate directly to the junk folder.

In brief: #Gamergate started in late August when an ex-boyfriend of independent game designer Zoe Quinn posted an intimate account of their failed relationship, including accusations that Quinn had several affairs with men who write for videogame news and review sites. This, he implied, explained why her interactive fiction game Depression Quest had become an award-winning success. The ex-boyfriend also explicitly stated that his purpose in posting his interpretation of their relationship was to ruin her career.

#Gamergate should have ended there. Exploiting the personal life of a woman to call into question her professional success is an all-too familiar tactic to delegitimize women’s work and status. In 2007, Ubisoft producer Jade Raymond endured similar public humiliation when popular gaming blogs accused her of using sex appeal to promote Assassin’s Creed, suggesting as well that she reached her position at Ubisoft only because she is an attractive woman. For Quinn, the accusation that her success is a result of sleeping her way to fame followed months of harassment and negative comments about her game from users on Steam Greenlight, many of whom claimed Depression Question was not a ‘real game’ worthy of development support from Valve.

Unfortunately Kotaku, one of the news outlets named by the jilted ex, responded to accusations that one of their writers had acted unethically. After a brief investigation, Kotaku determined no ethical breach had occurred, but the editor’s statement only brought further attention to the smear campaign. Video “evidence” was produced in the form of rambling monologues, and graphics tracing Quinn’s supposed relationships within the industry were created and shared widely on 4chan, Reddit and Twitter. Shortly after the initial ex-boyfriend post, B-list actor Adam Baldwin (best known for playing Jayne Cobb on Firefly) linked to a “Quinnspiracy” video and tagged the Twitter post #gamergate; Baldwin has remained active in the #gamergate tag.

An insular, cozy relationship between publishers, developers and game journalists has characterized the industry for decades, though complaints from readers have rarely affected any policy changes. Like other sectors of the entertainment press, industry-sponsored media junkets and gadget-leaden swag bags continue to woo journalists and reviewers despite calls for more objective news coverage and more meaningful game criticism. The back pages of Game Informer, Computer Gaming World (before it folded in 2006) and dozens of gaming magazines over the years are filled with photos of journalists and editors hanging out with celebrity game designers and triple-A publishers at industry parties.

While the outrage about Quinn’s connections in the industry seems to raise fair concerns about journalism ethics, the focus of #gamergate has largely not been on journalists or on the well-funded publishers and developers who have courted the press with exclusive access and freebies for years. Instead, Quinn and other independent game developers with far fewer resources were targeted for fostering relationships and building professional networks – an absolute requirement for success in any creative industry.

The #gamergate controversy frothed when a few game journalists and editors were linked to indie developers through the crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Patreon, and at least one site adopted a policy of “disclosure” for such funding by writers. This sounds fine on the surface, but is a little more insidious when we consider who is usually supported through crowdfunding (i.e. indie developers, often with projects that fall well outside the triple-A mainstream); after all, nobody is asking the same writers to maintain a public list of major releases they’ve paid cash dollars for, even though by the same logic “supporting” development with money in any way should be suspect.

#Gamergate is not about ethics, or about making the industry more transparent. The rhetoric of #gamergate is a co-option of the concerns that women and minorities in the industry have raised for years. The reason #gamergate has struck such a chord now is because, indeed, the industry is changing. Diverse characters in games are more common and more women and minorities are making games. As others have commented, #gamergate signals a culture war within gaming that has been slowly building for decades and, following years on the margins, has finally broken through to the mainstream.

However, the conversation that should occur about inclusivity in games has been hijacked by an extremely conservative discourse that co-opts the language of exclusion in order to argue that the cultural shift occurring is meant to deny gamers their preferred experiences. Transcripts of 4chan conversations and Reddit threads where instigators of #gamergate strategize the online abuse of women and their allies who dare to challenge the status quo read like talking points crafted by conservative political consultant Frank Luntz and right-wing commentator Glenn Beck. It is a world turned upside down, and it would be funnier if it were not alternately scary and tiresome. Even as #gamergate has simultaneously reached mainstream attention and hysterical levels of conspiracy theory paranoia, it remains at heart an object lesson in the harassment that women in and around the game industry are subjected to.

If #gamergate has uncovered anything, it has revealed that some people with shared professional interests know each other, that some people with shared professional interests attend the same professional events, and that some people with shared professional interests are reminded, daily, that those very interests put them at risk. But, hey, we knew that already.


Kollecting Kim K. Skills: Kardashianized Celebrity in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood Fri, 25 Jul 2014 13:30:38 +0000 Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, the celebrity legitimizes her image while also propagating her brand by redefining fame as an accumulation of skills.]]> “In order to win at life, you need some Kim K skills, period.” – Kanye West

In a recent GQ interview, Kanye West attributes new wife Kim Kardashian with teaching him to better manage his celebrity. However, analogous with popular discourses defining the couple as shallow and fame-obsessed, West’s verbiage ultimately doesn’t say anything. West never defines “Kim K. skills” as more than some kind of intangible communication skills, but expects that the interviewer, and subsequently the general public, will know exactly what he means. Though only mentioned peripherally by West, Kim K. skills are, however, delineated in the new mobile game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Through the game, Kardashian legitimizes her celebrity while also propagating her brand by redefining fame in her image – as the accumulation of “Kim K. skills.”

Kim’s avatar demonstrates the first Kim K. skill in the game’s initial sequence: charm is the key to everything. She charms you into reopening a boutique so she may outfit herself for an upcoming event. Your only option is to help Kim, which is rewarded when she invites you to the event. As you progress through the game, charm becomes a form of currency. You cannot connect with new people outside your current celebrity rank unless you use your hard-to-come-by K Stars to charm them. Whenever you choose “charm” as an action, your relationship grows stronger, which increases your celebrity.

Charming people to like you underscores another Kim K. skill: perceived relationships are paramount in achieving fame. Charm gets you into Kim’s event, but it’s your association with Kim that makes the paparazzi care. As a result, Kim sets you up with a manager and a publicist to help you work towards A-List stardom. Your relationships with these intermediaries are static, but they give you opportunities to improve your public personae. Other in-game relationships, however, are necessary to level up. Bars and clubs are populated with people of varying celebrity rank who can increase your celebrity. Whether you choose to network with or date new contacts, relationships are only cultivated in professional capacities.

Kim K. - Dating Level Up

Your network can join you at personal appearances, and dates happen in public to be seen and subsequently tweeted about. The game allows players to integrate their real-life networks, as you can interact with your friends’ avatars.  Even negative relationships gain fame. When a celebutant expresses jealousy over your relationship with Kim, she sparks a feud that establishes your Twitter following.

In addition to social currencies, the way to celebrity is through accumulating stuff. Kardashian herself comes from wealth, and the association between money and fame is integral to game play. Though the game itself is free to download and play, it becomes quickly apparent that advancing is easier by investing real money. Various reviews have reported how easy it is to spend real money on the game. The types of currency are in-game dollars, energy points, and K Stars. You earn money from constant modeling gigs and paid appearances. Energy is needed to do anything, and is easily expended causing you to wait until it’s replenished or trade precious K Stars for more. K Stars only come from leveling up or from in-app purchases.

Kim K - K Star Store

The dollars one earns are inadequate to keep up with Kim. Players increase their celebrity status with new outfits, homes, cars, and buying gifts to improve relationships, but most lifestyle enhancers can only be purchased with K Stars.

Kim K - Kim K. Clothes Store

Although many items have high price tags, acquiring them creates momentary relief before anxiety sets in again about what else you need to augment your celebrity lifestyle. And, as mentioned, K Stars also act as social currency.

The most ubiquitous Kim K. skill throughout the game is the power of personal branding. Kardashian’s brand is everywhere: the revamped Hollywood sign; each Kardash boutique interior mimics its DASH counterpart; the K Stars.


Kim herself is the most important brand and celebrity signifier. She is your entry point into the celebrity game/game-play and her approval makes you worthy of attention. The game reinforces the celebrity system and Kim’s position in it, both of which depend on hierarchies to establish their value. Likewise, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood addresses the specific dichotomy informing reality TV celebrity personae: that stars need to be approachable and authentic to attract viewers, but ultimately need to remain separate to be special. Celebrity reinforces capitalism because celebrities constantly remind regular people of what they don’t have and should want. In the game, you need virtual and real money for the Tribeca loft and new Louboutins to project a celebrity lifestyle despite whether or not you can afford it.

Even when you get to the A-list, you still need to accumulate fans to increase your ranking. Curiously enough, Kim Kardashian is not a rankable celebrity. Players don’t compete with her, as she is above the celebrity system because her celebrity is established. Kardashian is the definitive arbiter of Kim K. skills, and ultimately unreachable in her version of celebrity.


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Disney Infinity: Behind the P(l)aywall [Part Three] Thu, 29 Aug 2013 14:00:29 +0000 DisneyInfinityToyBoxAs Disney shifts its attention toward social and mobile gaming, Disney Infinity seems intended to be a solution for staying relevant in the space of console and handheld gaming. As discussed in Part One and Part Two, Infinity lives on the rhetoric of innovation and the logic of efficiency simultaneously, limiting the scale and scope of licensed titles being made available through the platform.

However, this analysis privileges a sense of gaming value predicated on structured gameplay experiences, and Disney Infinity is also built around an open-ended world of creativity. Its Toy Box mode may be derivative of other titles, but it gives gamers the keys to the Magic Kingdom and allows them to explore their own Disney-branded worlds using the range of characters available for the game. While the play sets offer rigid franchise experiences where only figures from that particular franchise are able to participate, the Toy Box mode offers the absolute freedom to create your own Disney mash-ups.

It represents an expansion of the Disney license, away from purely promoting a single franchise toward reframing sandbox game creation within the context of the Disney universe (the title of a smaller “mash-up” title released in 2011). Many of the “toys” available to gamers are characters or locations from films like Aladdin or Disney-owned properties like The Muppets, and playing each play set unlocks items from those games that can then be repurposed and mashed up in the creation of new user-generated levels. The Toy Box system is robust: while some levels can be basic sandboxes for exploration, a series of “Creativi-Toys” give gamers the chance to build intelligent levels with internal logic and goals. It is here where Disney shifts their attention away from promotional value and toward building a platform that can continue to offer gamers value as long as new levels are being created and then shared with the community (either by users or by Disney themselves).

Disney Infinity: Behind the P(l)aywall [Part Three]

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

DisneyInfinityVaultAlthough this potential value is a substantial part of Disney Infinity’s promise to gamers, it is built on value propositions uncommon within console gaming. The Toy Box mode comes with only a limited range of items, with users having to unlock other items through either collecting capsules scattered throughout each of the game’s five play sets or using “Infinity Spins”—earned by leveling up characters and completing Toy Box activities—to unlock items in the “Infinity Vault.” These items, which are picked at random when Infinity Spins are used, include the fundamental building blocks of more substantial levels, like race track pieces and side-scrolling cameras. If you want to build more complicated levels, you need to play the game long enough to earn the spins necessary to ensure you can collect these items at random.

It is here where Disney Infinity, despite being a console-based product and despite costing at least $74.99, evokes the free-to-play logics of social and mobile gaming. Its Toy Box mode is trapped behind a “playwall,” in which the full potential of the mode—if not its basic functionality—requires gamers to invest considerable time and energy in the rest of the game. While this does not necessarily require additional financial investment beyond the Starter Pack, it does encourage it: the fastest way to earn Infinity Spins is to buy additional characters to level up, as well as additional play sets to expand the Toy Box offerings available. The play sets themselves encourage this with an in-game Infinity Vault, which is only unlocked once you’ve collected every character tied to that play set and contains key Toy Box building blocks.


Disney’s “Sidekicks” figure pack—that they classify Mrs. Incredible as a “sidekick” is worth a larger discussion at a later date.

Although the game is playable out of the box, additional financial investment is ultimately required to access the full Disney Infinity experience. The choice to limit the play sets to characters from that franchise means that gamers who want to play co-operatively within each of the play sets must invest in at least three additional figures, which Disney has facilitated through discounted—but still $30—three-packs featuring characters from the three Starter Pack play sets. The ability to access multiplayer is the most substantial value tied to the purchase of additional figures. All characters are more or less evenly balanced, with no substantial gameplay differences when switching from character to character; beyond the value of collecting and playing as a favorite character, their value is instead tied to unlocking content the game has purposefully blocked off in order to incentivize further investment in the platform. The game’s Hall of Heroes tracks your progress in the game, but it also reminds you of all of the figures and power discs you haven’t collected yet.

The YouTube ID of Q_l3gzI8O5k#t=16 is invalid.

Like free-to-play titles, Disney Infinity is always quick to remind you of what you’re missing without making further investment. Character-specific vaults are scattered throughout each play set, locked until you purchase the character in question, and the game’s introduction makes sure to introduce you to various upcoming figures—and play sets—that won’t even be available to purchase until later this fall. However, unlike free-to-play titles, Disney Infinity isn’t actually free-to-play: although their PC and iPad apps allows you to build and share Toy Box creations for free, actually playing the game requires a $75 investment. It’s a high price, which raises the question of why the designers chose to place key Toy Box content behind its “playwall”: while the game has built-in incentives to encourage further purchases, getting gamers to commit to the platform based on potential value locked at launch is more challenging.

Disney Infinity represents a clear shift in Disney’s approach to licensing their valuable intellectual property, but it comes with as many limitations as possibilities. While Disney is promising an epic scale, and has still yet to fully tap into the incredibly valuable “golden age” animated properties of the 1990s, their efforts with Disney Infinity prioritize the business of licensed gaming without necessarily being able to offer gamers the scale they’ve promised without substantial investment.


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Disney Infinity: A Promotional Platform [Part Two] Wed, 28 Aug 2013 14:00:35 +0000 lone-ranger_1b-xlAs mentioned in yesterday’s post, it would be wrong to suggest Disney Infinity signals a step away from licensed tie-in titles from Disney Interactive. Indeed, of the five “playsets”—6-8 hour open-world games based exclusively in a single Disney franchise—either included in the Starter Pack or available sold separately at a cost of $34.99, two are based on films released this summer: June’s Monsters University, and July’s The Lone Ranger. Disney Infinity was initially intended to be released in June just as those films were entering theaters, although subsequent delays mean the “tie-in” play sets are available after both films have largely completed their respective box office runs.

The Lone Ranger play set, one of the two sold separately from the Starter Pack, functions more or less like any other licensed game tied to a film’s release. The play set was supposed to introduce the film’s world and its characters to audiences ahead of the film’s release, but instead—because of the delay, which was allegedly to appease retailers who wanted a release closer to the holiday season—arrives as a monument to a box office failure. While the play set was in development too long in advance to scrap entirely, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are absent from some of the promotional images surrounding the game’s release, and it is the only play set for which only two figures were produced (with fellow standalone play set, Cars, earning two extra figures beyond those included with the play set).


While not absent from all promotions for the film, this common piece of promotional material—found, among other places, on the official Infinity website—omits The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

Like any case of licensed content tied to a failed franchise, the Lone Ranger play set has a degree of novelty attached to it—after seeing I had purchased the play set, a colleague commented that it would either be worth a lot or nothing at all in thirty years. However, if the film had been successful, the play set would have offered a valuable case study for the future of Disney Infinity as a promotional platform. Would filmgoers have bought into the Infinity platform solely to access licensed content tied to a box office success, spending—at MSRP—$110 for the privilege? Would Disney Infinity gamers hungry for more content have picked up the play set and—provided the game was released during its planned June window—potentially gained greater interest in the film?

Disney Infinity: A Promotional Platform [Part Two]

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

These questions are integral to the future productivity of Disney Infinity to Disney. Moving their licensed content onto the Infinity platform to help build interest in its release is certainly one of Disney’s goals, although one that is more likely to work with pre-existing franchises like Cars than with something entirely new. Disney’s selection of play sets to include with the Starter Pack—The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Monsters University—demonstrate a preference for franchises that appeal to both adults and kids, heavily relying on Pixar’s track record and largely obscuring Disney Animation Studios’ own animated output (although Wreck-it-Ralph figures are coming, and myriad Disney projects are represented in items available in the game’s Toy Box mode). These Starter Pack franchises are being used as gateways, which can then build an install base large enough that when Disney releases Frozen in November it will have figures available on store shelves ready to meet the demands of kids who’ve seen the movie.

FrozenImageHowever, Disney’s plans for Frozen in Infinity capture the difficulty of developing a new franchise through a still nascent platform. Although figures for Anna and Elsa are going to be made available, along with “power discs” offering special tools for the game’s Toy Box mode, there will be no open-world play set tied to the film. Instead, Disney will once again rely on an existing franchise to add value to the platform ahead of the Christmas holidays, with a “Toy Story in Space” play set launching in October alongside a collection of new stand-alone figures. And since players can only use figures from a particular franchise in a play set, the Anna and Elsa figures will only work in the sandbox Toy Box mode, with only a single character-specific mission built for each of the two characters as opposed to an entire “game.”

Although this may simply be a reality of the timing of Frozen’s release relative to the platform’s development, it signals that thinking about Disney Infinity as a replacement for licensed tie-ins—as opposed to the creative revolution they claim—may still be overestimating Disney’s plans. Rather, it may instead offer a way for them to avoid developing a traditional console and/or handheld title for particular films but nonetheless give those films a presence in the space of console and handheld video games. The company may otherwise be content to serve fans in the space of browser and mobile gaming, where development is cheaper and where Disney is having success with developing new franchises like Where’s My Water alongside derivative mobile titles.

FrozenInfinityThis plan would likely serve Disney’s financial and promotional goals for Frozen, but it also means the value the franchise is adding to Infinity is limited. Although the two Frozen figures will—as pictured—be sold bundled with the two power discs (which are in other instances purchased in packages of two for $4.99) to commemorate the film’s opening, that package offers minimal new “content,” primarily offering aesthetic changes in Toy Box mode. With no future play sets planned beyond Toy Story, the Infinity platform functions not just as a new way to released licensed content but also a way for Disney to scale back its licensed game development while nonetheless ensuring presence—if not substantial presence—on consoles in the future. The question becomes whether they’re offering enough value in these standalone licensed products for them to serve as a promotional platform for either Infinity or the films in question, a question I will explore further in the final post of this series, “Behind the P(l)aywall“. See also the first post, “A Low-Risk Revolution.”


Disney Infinity: A Low-Risk Revolution [Part One] Tue, 27 Aug 2013 13:46:57 +0000 disney-infinity-starter-packWriting about Disney Infinity, the latest multi-platform effort from the company’s Interactive division, Salon’s Sarah Kessler claims “Disney has treated its video games like accessories for a long time” and “most [games] have been treated like character lunch boxes and developed on short deadlines in order to match movie release dates,” extending a long line of discourse lamenting the poor quality of licensed video games. She presents Disney Infinity as the antidote, “a dramatic shift in the way Disney’s executives think about gaming”: It has a big budget, a long development period, and the cross-platform integration necessary in a contemporary, digital moment.

Kessler is not the only one to position Disney Infinity as a bold shift for Disney in the gaming field (see also: USA Today, The Hollywood Reporter, The Wall Street Journal), but her article—unlike some of the others—downplays the derivative nature of Disney Infinity both as a game and as a gaming platform (focusing instead on the company’s broader approach to digital media, which I will explore in a subsequent post). Disney Infinity represents an intersection of risk and risk-aversion, a game designed to revolutionize—or at least claim to revolutionize—how Disney licenses their franchises within the gaming industry while simultaneously emulating pre-existing business models from within that industry.

SkylandersAntennaWhen considering Disney Infinity as a business model, there is no question that Disney is looking closely at one of its competitors. Activision’s Skylanders series, which will release its third iteration Swapforce this fall, became a surprise success upon its debut in 2011. The series’ USB interface allowed gamers to transform collectible figurines—running roughly between $8 and $13—into in-game characters before their eyes, encouraging consumptive collecting as kids sought to gain access to all available characters. The Skylanders series has generated more than $1.5 billion in retail sales since its launch, a huge success for Activision and a definite inspiration for other companies wanting to cash in.

Disney Infinity is unable to hide its debt to Skylanders’ success. A $75 starter pack offers a collection of three figures—Jack Sparrow, Sulley, and Mr. Incredible—and a USB “Infinity Pad,” designed to activate the 17 figures from beloved Disney franchises available at launch (you can find the full lineup of content here). Infinity continues the convergence between the action figure aisle and the video game aisle, helped by prominent placement at retailers like Toys R Us (who embraced Skylanders, and who have partnered with Disney for an exclusive figure and other store-exclusive Infinity content). With additional figures and playsets—which add additional content—arriving beginning in October, Disney has positioned itself to take advantage of the holiday rush while simultaneously capturing early adopters looking to fill their virtual—and physical—toy boxes.

Although ambitious in scale, that Infinity is so clearly copying—if also altering, as I’ll explore in subsequent posts—Activision’s business model seems at odds with Disney’s corporate focus on creativity. While the game’s appeal is built around a “Toy Box” mode that expands on Skylanders‘ success and offers gamers the chance to bring different Disney franchises together and create their own levels in the Disney tradition of imagination (highlighted in the above trailer), even that mode is very purposefully modeled on recent success stories like Mojang’s Minecraft and Media Molecule’s Little Big Planet series.

While Disney Interactive’s Avalanche Software—who previously developed the licensed tie-in based on Toy Story 3—has created a game built on the rhetoric of imagination and creativity, Disney Infinity is also a game that has carefully calculated its structure based on the market—and critical—success of other companies. Although it is true that any gaming investment on this scale is a risk, in this case it’s a risk that has been mitigated by Disney’s conscious effort to copy their competitors in this field.

It’s also a risk that despite its initial scale is designed to simplify the process of Disney continuing to leverage its film and television content in the way it has for years. Although an ambitious undertaking in terms of initial financial investment, an established platform like Infinity provides Disney with a game engine, an install base of consumers, and a development familiarity that will allow them to efficiently deliver content tied to new feature films or television projects without the challenges of working with a range of development studios on separate licensed titles. Disney shut down multiple in-house studios and various in-progress licensed titles to funnel development toward Infinity, betting on its long-term potential not to revolutionize the quality of licensed video games but to make it more efficient to develop the kind of “lunch box” paratexts that Kessler prematurely signals are no longer part of Disney’s strategy.

Disney Infinity is at its core a fancier, more expensive, and multi-compartmentalized lunch box, one that in its engagement with so many Disney franchises appeals to both nostalgic parents and avid young Disney fans alike. It’s an impressive monument to the Disney legacy, but at the same time it’s a monument to a legacy of “Imagineering” that shows substantive creativity in neither its short term risk-aversion nor its long-term goal of franchising efficiency. Although the game offers a platform in its “Toy Box” mode to build your own worlds and engage in gamers’ creativity through downloading user-generated levels from a central server, at launch it’s difficult to see Disney as innovating in the space of video games so much as they are slightly recalibrating the way they use video games in response to prevailing market trends.

In part two (“A Promotional Platform“) and part three (“Behind the P(l)aywall“), I will further explore how Disney intends to handle the development of promotional paratexts within the Infinity platform, as well as how the company is defining gaming “value” within the platform both at launch and in the release of additional content in the months and years ahead.


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E3 Preview: Big Changes for the Gaming Industry Mon, 10 Jun 2013 13:00:33 +0000 E3 LogoE3, the massive videogame industry trade fair, begins this week, and with it will come a slew of announcements promising gaming will forever change. This is absolutely correct. But the most important change for videogames on the horizon is not in graphical fidelity, innovative gameplay, or (god-forbid) story-telling and quality. No, the biggest change coming to videogames is not in how we play games, but how we buy them.

Earlier this year, Sony and Microsoft announced their additions to the newest console generation, the PlayStation 4 and XBox One, respectively. Coming this holiday season, E3 will certainly be a showcase for both consoles, providing another stage for both companies to win over consumers, as well as stockholders, game developers, and industry publishers. And it is those last two that seem most at odds in Sony and Microsoft’s plans. Based on their previous announcements, let’s take a look at what we can expect from this year’s E3.

Let’s start with Sony. The biggest takeaway from the PlayStation 4 announcement, and its subsequent marketing and press materials leading up to E3, is a focus on game developers. While in-house or 1st party development teams are still a large market force (just ask Nintendo, hurting for 3rd party developers), a recent industry survey shows 53% of game developers recognize themselves as independent. This shift in the way games are being made has Sony positioning themselves to take advantage. As Andrew Groen notes in an article in Wired, “There’s a war brewing for the hearts and minds of the videogame industry’s independent developers. The weird thing is, Xbox doesn’t seem interested in fighting it.” Groen quotes independent developers like Braid‘s Jonathan Blow and Retro City Rampage‘s Brian Provinciano who found working with Microsoft to be excruciating and unnecessarily difficult, with restrictive demands and guidelines, as well as errors while publishing that have cost these developers money. Sony will be taking this message of developer-friendliness with them to E3, where they will be giving out shirts with the tagline “No hurdles, just games,” followed by the PlayStation symbol, a pixelated heart, and the word “Devs.”

Turning to Microsoft, if I had to sum up the reaction to Microsoft’s May 21 reveal of the XBox One in just one word, it would be confusion. Industry reporters used words like disaster, desperate, and uncertain. Most of this stemmed from Microsoft’s lack of clarification on crucial issues like persistent online connection, used-game functionality, and privacy concerns over the ‘always-listening’ nature of the Kinect motion-sensing camera/microphone. Perhaps Microsoft realized the situation when this past Friday it made a post on its XBox Wire titled “How Game Licensing Works on XBox One.” In the document Microsoft attempts to clarify some of these points of confusion, emphasizing how games are always installed and registered directly to your unique XBox ID (whether purchased digitally or a physical disc), how game trade-ins and reselling will be up to the publisher to decide whether to enable this functionality, and that the XBox One must be connected to the internet once every 24 hours to allow games to be played. This time the reaction was a bit worse with one reporter claiming the XBox One “just had a very bad day.”

What Microsoft is trying to do with the XBox One is apply similar digital rights management (DRM) we see used on digital-commercial platforms like Steam and the App Store to a console that still supports physical, disc-based media. By tying game purchases to individual users and accounts, they are taking the physical out of the equation, much in the same way software is already registered to individual devices (Remember, this is still Microsoft). However, this ignores the several thousands of console users who do not have dedicated internet access or simply choose to use physical copies. Consider the entire video game rental business, which is completely unsupportable by the XBox One at launch. According to the post, “Loaning or renting games won’t be available at launch, but we are exploring the possibilities with our partners.”

To be clear, Sony has not been forthright with their system’s DRM and may well take on a policy similar to Microsoft’s. Hopefully Sony will reveal that at E3. But the question remains why Microsoft would risk alienating a large portion of their users? Just as Sony is looking to appeal to game developers, Microsoft is wooing game publishers. Used games have been a scapegoat for hurting sales and profit margins, and Microsoft may appeal to publishers by giving them that control, while avoiding being the ‘bad guys’ themselves by outright banning the second-hand market.

Both Sony and Microsoft have a lot of questions to address at E3. Their answers will change the course the video game industry follows, having nothing to do with the actual games and everything to do with the economics of the market.


What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


#1ReasonToBe and Many Reasons To Still Worry Tue, 09 Apr 2013 13:45:21 +0000 GDC-1ReasonToBeThe 26th annual Game Developer’s Conference recently met from March 25 through March 29, 2013. As it has in the past several years, the GDC met in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, spilling out into surrounding events, parties, and satellite unconferences (such as this year’s Lost Levels). As the industry’s largest event, GDC brought together over 23,000 developers, journalists, marketers, academics, and fans. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year’s GDC, but as I viewed the events from afar, a number of major themes seemed to develop through the blog coverage and ongoing Twitter conversations.

One of this year’s key stories seems to be regarding how the industry deals with difference and inclusivity, both for developers and for the industry as a whole. The games industry has rightly been accused of failing to accommodate perspectives beyond those of the young men that have stereotypically been seen as the industry’s primary consumers. A potential watershed moment during this year’s conference was the #1ReasonToBe panel, featuring developers including Brenda Romero (Wizardry, Jagged Alliance), Robin Hunicke (Journey, Glitch, Funomena), Kim McCaullife (Microsoft Studios), Leigh Alexander (journalist for Gamasutra, Kotaku, and others), Elizabeth Sampat (Storm8), and Mattie Brice (independent game critic/journalist).

The panel cleverly pushed the devastasting #1ReasonWhy hashtag into new territory, incorporating both problems facing women in the games industry and “reasons for women to be” in the games industry. Presenters recounted horror stories of both casual and explicit sexism within the industry, while aspiring to start a larger conversation in the industry on issues of gender. The #1ReasonToBe hashtag on Twitter is still ongoing, albeit with less of the vigor that typified the #1ReasonWhy hashtag.

How much of this represents a real and significant shift in the culture of game design? For some, it seems clear that the industry is undergoing significant change on several fronts — The New York Times summarized GDC 2013 as the year the indies “grabbed the controls.” As quoted in the Times piece, game designer Eric Zimmerman has decided to end his annual, provocative Game Design Challenge (won this year by Jason Rohrer, for the second time in three years), explaining that “The idea of doing strange, bizarre, experimental games is no longer strange, bizarre or experimental.” Perhaps, in this context and in this particular moment, panels such as #1ReasonToBe may gain significant traction in the industry.

Unfortunately, even while there was a concerted effort by attendees and regular GDC organizers to reframe who the “games industry” is, some of the events surrounding GDC were still problematic. The International Game Developer’s Association came under widespread criticism for scantily-clad women dancers at their professional conference party. This drew the attention of the aforementioned Brenda Romero, who on the same day she was awarded a Women In Games lifetime achievement award very quickly resigned as co-chair of IGDA’s Women in Games special interest group (along with other IGDA resignations, including outgoing board member Darius Kazemi). On top of this, the creators of Minecraft, Mojang Specifications, threw a party that several developers alleged included women who were paid by the company to socialize with (predominantly male) game developers. Mojang has denied these accusations.

So, how do we come to some sense of where the industry is going? Was 2013 a breakthrough or just a case of an industry that’s moving to address its problematic gender culture while thousands of other attending developers were fine with business as usual? The discussion of gender and inclusivity at GDC2013 included very little from the Nintendos, Microsofts, Sonys, Capcoms, Activision Blizzards, Valves, and so on. In this regard, perhaps Zimmerman’s statement about the shift toward experimentation and change was correct; though the era of the AAA studio has not necessarily passed, AAA products and AAA studios were certainly not the story at this year’s conference. Rather than feature rollouts of new gaming consoles or prodcuts, the industry focused on deep discussions regarding its own culture and ways forward.

In-conference discussions of inclusivity and difference are just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the struggles with these very issues in the male-dominated, party-centric culture around the conference may indicate. How do we bridge this gap?


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