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There are very few veterans in the videogame industry today who have been around as long as Don Mattrick. Don is pretty much responsible for launching the rise of Vancouver, Canada, as one of the world’s pre-eminent videogame development centres from 1999 to 2009. Back in the early 1980’s, he and his friend Jason Sember were a couple of gawky teenagers who created a hit arcade action title called Evolution. Don created Distinctive Software in 1983, which later would become Electronic Arts Canada in 1991. It’s accurate to say that EA Canada was the incubator that spawned other Vancouver game companies like Radical Entertainment, Barking Dog Studios, Relic Entertainment, Next Level Games, and many other small studios. Don remained at the helm of EA Canada until the fall of 2006, when he was hired by Microsoft to head up the Interactive Entertainment Division and overhaul the Xbox 360.

Today I learned that Don Mattrick left Microsoft and will take over as the new CEO of social game publisher Zynga. At first glance, it seems a bit puzzling to see the glorious Mr. Mattrick leave the Microsoft mothership to head up a failing social game company. What in the name of Master Chief would persuade him to do such a thing?

The answer: XBox One

Like all publicly traded companies, the shareholders expect Microsoft to generate a profit. When Don took over the Xbox division in early 2007, it was bleeding red ink. They were not making money off their software titles  for the then brand new Xbox 360 as expected. There is a fundamental principle in the videogame industry – software drives hardware. If you’re not providing gamers with enough must-have hit titles, your console sales will go down the tubes. When it comes to game software development, Don knows his stuff. He managed to turn the Xbox division around and grow it into a reasonably sucessful subsidiary of Microsoft’s business. But the problem with Microsoft is that at its heart, the company isn’t focused on designing and developing consumer technology products. It started as a computer software company that develops applications and system software – that’s where the majority of its profit centre comes from.

Several weeks ago at E3, Microsoft did a big launch of the XBox One – a machine that looks less like a videogame console and resembles something more like a big, black, oversized DVD player. It also has that creepy HAL 9000 style camera lens for its Kinect player.  If there’s one thing Don Mattrick loves, it’s being the centre of attention. He thrives on being the circus ringmaster. Or in this case, lead frat boy of the game geek fraternity. I’ve been to E3 five times, from 1995 to 2000. In the past 13 years since my last visit to Los Angeles, nothing has changed. It’s the same overblown, overhyped, overpromised medicine show attended by hard core adult male gamers who just want to blow stuff up and eviscerate other players in virtual space. The XBox One show featured overly confident game producer types who lacked any public speaking skills and were utterly wooden in their performances.

Watching Don and his travelling road show praise the Xbox One as the ultimate convergence in home entertainment reminded me of another great company that made the same promises. It was 1999, and the newly appointed President  of Sony Corporation, Noboyuki Idei, said that the new PlayStation Two would usher in a new era in home theatre, linking games, entertainment, and the Internet. It never happened. The embarassing thing about PS2 in Japan when it first appeared was that the Japanese were buying it as a cheap DVD player, not a game console. So here was Microsoft, 13 years later, touting the Xbox One as the convergence of home theatre, online, and television.

I was experiencing deja’ vu. Microsoft made the same mistake Sony did with the PS2. Gamers buy consoles to play games. That’s what it’s all about. A talking box that lets you wave your fingers to watch TV shows isn’t going to be a deal-breaking sales feature. It’s about the games. Period.

Microsoft announced that players had to check in online every 24 hours with their Xbox One to maintain an active connection. I raised an eyebrow. Then they announced that you wouldn’t be able to play with used games or ones provided by your  friends without the appropriate key. That’s when I felt a disturbance in the force. Microsoft was pulling a discrete NSA form of surveillance on the Xbox One gamer community to ferret out piracy. And there was one more thing – this vaunted hallelujah-talking-TV-game console would cost $499.00

Don Mattrick and Microsoft over-reached on trying to control the market for their new console. Sony was about to give them a total face-plant.

To be continued…

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

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Sack BoySunny days! Oh those sunny, sunny days,

Ain’t nothing better in the world you know, than lying in the sun with your Nintendo…

Well, maybe you ought to keep it in the shade 🙂

It’s a hot summer Sunday afternoon here in Vancouver. So the good Doctor thought now would be a perfect time to catch up on the video game news with another edition of ‘Power Up!’.

It’s hard to believe that the Sony Playstation 3 title Little Big Planet has been out for not quite a year. This highly creative, imaginative, award winning platform style game just passed a major milestone – one milllion user created levels! To mark the occasion, Sony Computer Entertainment released a video that showcases a range of levels crafted by talented players:

What surprises me is that there are so many people out there who own a Playstation 3! One of the original comments about Little Big Planet was that it seemed the sort of title you might find for the Nintendo Wii.

Speaking of Nintendo, they announced some very interesting titles at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last month. New games are coming out that make use of the Wii balance board. There are approximately six million boards currently in North American homes thanks to sales of Wii Fit. If you’re a fan of Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, then prepare to be challenged by Super Monkey Ball: Step & Roll, coming out in 2010. The game play is controlled by using the balance board.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 for the Wii was introduced, featuring Mario, Yoshi, and all the characters we know from the Mushroom Kingdom. It astounds me that I’ve known Mario now for…28 years! I’ll never forget that first fateful meeting beside the butcher counter of the local corner grocery store at  the Cadboro Bay shopping village in Victoria back in 1981. If I only knew then how my infatuation with Donkey Kong would lead to getting involved in the video game business…

And finally, a game for everyone’s inner pirate to roam the seas and plunder the islands for treasure and glory! Telltale Games is unleashing new episodes of the classic adventure comedy Monkey Island for the PC and the Wii. It’s fair to say that this series, originally created by Lucas Arts in the 1990’s, is renowned for its clever use of comedy and all things piratical. In this installment, Tales of Monkey Island, our swashbuckling, wet behind the ears hero Guybrush Threepwood and the love of his life Governor Elaine Marley confront the maggoty, treacherous, overly ripe zombie ghost pirate Le Chuck.

Adventure, gold, romance, and monkeys! Arghhhhhh! Tis’  the pirates’ life for me!

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

Sergeant PepperIf there’s one thing I’m grateful for in my life, it’s that my parents had a huge record collection when I was a child in the 1960’s. I was raised in a home where music was always played. One of my earliest memories is dancing wildly to Collette Renard singing a song from the comedy Irma La Douce when  I was three years old. My mother said I spun around and around and around. I was introduced to folk music from Bob Dylan, The Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. My parents’ collection included the controversial musical Hair. At eight years old, I knew the lyrics to Age of Aquarius by heart. But if I had to name a group that was the soundtrack for my childhood, it would be the Fab Four from Liverpool – George, John, Paul, and Ringo.

There are so many Beatles songs I can associate with my childhood. I remember hearing ‘I’ll Follow the Sun‘ when I was five years old. ‘All You Need is Love’ as we drove along a highway in rural Ontario on a rainy day when I was eight. ‘Yellow Submarine‘ buying vanilla chocolate chip ice cream at Britannia Bay in Ottawa on a hot summer afternoon when I was nine. I also remember my mother refusing to let me see the animated movie ‘Yellow Submarine‘. In retrospect, maybe she was right. The imagery of that film was really psychadelic. Or maybe she feared I’d turn into a flower child like some of my babysitters 🙂 My most favourite memory is hearing ‘Maxwell’s Hammer‘ on my grandfather’s enormous sound system at Glen Lake in Langford, BC, when I was ten. When I turned twelve, the songs that marked the passage into my turbulent teenage years were ‘Hey Jude‘ and ‘Let it Be‘.

Even though the band long since dissolved, and George and John departed this world for the ethereal Strawberry Fields, the music of the Beatles still endures decades later. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise and enthusiasm when it was announced at this year’s 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) that The Beatles: Rockband for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii, will make its global debut on September 9, 2009 – the same day as the re-release of all their albums.

This idea for this game was originally championed by George Harrison’s son Dhani. It was presented to Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono –  the majority shareholders of Apple Corps. It was developed by Harmonix in collaboration with Apple Corps. The game follows the history of the Fab Four – you actually choose which Beatle you want to play. Are you the enigmatic John? The contemplative George? The cool Paul? Or the mellow Ringo? The instruments are modelled on the drums and guitars used by the Beatles. The soundtrack includes 45 original titles remastered by the engineers at the Apple Corps studios. There’s also actual in-studio dialogue from the Fab Four as well.

I have no doubts that The Beatles: Rockband is going to be incredibly successful when it makes its worldwide debut on September 9. There was a huge reaction to it at E3, especially when Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr showed up to give their blessing. I couldn’t help but find it amusing to see the mostly 20 something audience wildly cheering for a group who played before most of them were even born! <Insert snide comment about these gosh darned kids today and their music> 🙂

On another note, it strikes me that a new cultural threshold is being crossed when a video game becomes a platform to acquaint and re-acquaint people with such a global influence as the history, music, and visual style of the Beatles. It’s almost a ‘karma’ sort of thing that the son of a Beatle would bring forward this idea and help to make it happen. Somewhere George Harrison must be smiling.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

Workers of the World Unite! It’s time for another edition of Power Up!

Six Days in FallujahIn Power Up 4! on April 8th, I wrote about Konami Digital Entertainment working with Atomic Games in North Carolina to produce Six Days in Fallujah, a Playstation 3 title that recreated this well known battle in Iraq. Now it appears that Konami is ‘bugging out’ of the project according to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper. The company received many negative comments and e-mails from the United Kingdom and the United States that were highly critical of the company’s plan to publish this game. Game Politics also reports that the president of Atomic Games made comments at a recent Konami sponsored event that seemed to imply Iraqi insurgents were consulted during its development.

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Here comes Peter Cottontail, hoppin’ down the Power Up trail!

ToddlersHow young is too young for children to start playing video games? Take a look at some interesting stories from Citizen Gamer that deal with this controversial question. What do you think?

Speaking of kids and computers, there’s a news story from Kentucky about $300,000 USD in federal funding to develop a computer game that teaches middle school and high school students about protecting themselves from online predators.

Here’s a story that emphasizes why it’s important for parents to scrutinize what kind of video games they buy for their children. A mother bought a new Playstation Portable console for her six year old son at a Wal-Mart in Manatee, Florida. The little boy turned it on and discovered all kinds of pornographic images concealed in the PSP memory card. You can view the news report here.

There’s plenty of crude, offensive language to be found in online game chat. Microsoft’s XBox Live Channel recently came under fire from American gay and lesbian activists for its policies on this matter.

Should there be a ‘sin tax’ on video games because some of them are considered violent? In Europe and the United States, the issue is starting to receive more attention than in past years. Here’s a story from the Hartford Examiner in Connecticut.

It might surprise you to know that there are several billion people in the world who don’t play video games because they can’t afford them! But a San Diego based company called Zeebo is hoping to change that with their development of a low cost video game console that can be sold in countries like Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other emerging markets.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

NASA Computer Kids Image

NASA Computer Kids Image

Time to celebrate the first weekend of spring with another installment of ‘Power Up!’.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is developing a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) called Astronaut: Moon, Mars, and Beyond. The game is being developed by Virtual Heroes in North Carolina and uses the Unreal Tournament 3 software engine. Players will be able to create astronaut characters that take part in missions using real NASA space technologies.

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Time to ‘Power Up’ this week and catch up on some interesting video game news:

Do you have problems in chemistry remembering the periodic table of the elements? Take a look at this imaginative creation from a dedicated gamer.

Videogame Periodic Table from iHeartchaos.com

Videogame Periodic Table from iHeartchaos.com

Here’s an interesting article about how Guitar Hero and Rockband are having some positive effects on learning and music.

A pilot program at an elementary school in Washington DC is using Nintendo Wii Music to help promote interest in the subject. Nintendo plans to work with other schools across the United States.

If you’re thinking about adding more titles to your collection, here’s a very good article from EDGE magazine about the 100 best video games to play. EDGE is arguably one of the oldest and most comprehensive video game magazines still available.

Sony Canada voluntarily decided to remove a large advertisement for the Playstation 3 title Killzone 2 from a bus stop shelter in Toronto, Ontario,  after receiving a complaint from a teacher at a nearby elementary school. Sony is now reviewing how it will advertise future games near schools.

The Nintendo DS has now sold more than 100 million units since it was released in 2004. And people said playing with a touch screen would never work!

The Sony Playstation 2 continues to be a popular game console since it was released in 2000, with a total of 136 million units sold worldwide.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

Fifth Estate Top GunLast weekend, the popular CBC television program The Fifth Estate, aired an episode called ‘Top Gun’, which dealt with the death of Brandon Crisp; a 15 year old boy who ran away from home after getting into an argument with his parents about the amount of time and effort he spent playing the XBox360 title Call of Duty 4. Brandon fell out of a tree and crushed his chest upon impact.

The program interviewed the parents, a behavioural counsellor, Brandon’s friends, professional video game players from Major League Gaming, and a spokeswoman for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in Canada. I reviewed the episode three times and decided to write a letter to CBC television.

Here is what I wrote:

The Fifth Estate is well known for shining a spotlight on important issues that Canadians need to know about. However, I feel the level of investigation and research for this episode was shallow, resulting in a program that made Brandon’s family appear to be victims of the video game industry. Important questions were not asked of both parties, and you didn’t provide constructive information for viewers so they could educate themselves.


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This week I’m introducing a new posting called ‘Power Up!’ to highlight interesting headlines about video games appearing in the media. I plan to do this each week.

The Sony Playstation 2 lives! Sony Computer Entertainment is reporting the sale of their 50 millionth PS2 console in North America since it was first released in 2000.

Sales of the Nintendo Wii did very well in 2008. The game console that perplexed many a die hard gamer and game developer when it debuted in 2006 is now extremely popular around the world.

There are now more internet users in China than any other country in the world. According to reports, there are 298 million active users.

At last week’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, the CEO of Activision Blizzard delivered a keynote speech where he talked about video games eclipsing other media to become a dominant form of entertainment.

There’s an interesting news story from the UK about the effects of using video games like Tetris to treat post traumatic stress disorder.

Video games are increasingly becoming a form of political expression. In 2007, the Lebanese political organization Hezbollah released ‘Special Force 2‘ – a game that dealt with its conflict against Israel. In 2009, there’s a game called Raid Gaza that deals with the current conflict between Hamas and Israel.

And finally…if you’re hungry for World of Warcraft, take a look at this new restaurant in Beijing, China for faithful players who just can’t get enough Azeroth in their diet:

Doctor Arkanoid

(Note: This post is about the evolution of music based home video games. No offense intended to die hard Amiga, Apple, Atari, and Commodore 64 fans. I’ll cover music based personal computer games another time. I promise!)

Every year the commercial video game industry pumps out several thousand new titles across all platforms in North America. Christmas is still the ‘make or break’ time for many developers and publishers. The currently terrible economic conditions are hammering the industry worldwide. Thousands of creative folk are losing their jobs.  In the big leagues of commercial video games, it’s all about having a ‘Top 20‘ hit that catches the player’s imagination – and their money.

Since 2005, music based video games like Guitar Hero and more recently Rock Band gained status as the hot new hit, grabbing everyone’s attention with the ultimate fantasy of ‘living large’ as a big time rock star. Of course! It makes perfect sense when you think about it. But not so long ago this genre was considered an odd niche that belonged to those quirky gamers in Japan. It took many years to gain acceptance.

So where did the idea for musical video games come from? The roots of this genre go back to 1974, when Atari released their arcade title ‘Touch Me‘. But it was in 1978 at New York City’s Studio 54 night club, when the Milton Bradley Company debuted a disco newcomer named ‘Simon‘.

Simon was the epitomy of cool. It became an icon of the early 1980’s.

The game was a huge hit and many companies created copycat titles. Even Atari came out with a portable version of Touch Me.

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Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.