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Published on June 10th, 2010 | by gareth

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Q&A with Scott Steinberg of TechSavvy Global

Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. A celebrated gadget guru and video game expert, he frequently appears as an on-air technology analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN. Hailed as a top tech expert by dozens of publications from USA Today to Forbes and NPR, he’s covered the field for 400+ outlets from Playboy to Rolling Stone. His most recent book is Get Rich Playing Games. Skewed and Reviewed appreciates the time he took to share some of his insight.

What is your take on each of the new motion controls and what do you think the pro and cons of each will be? My big concern is that they will be like the Wii, which for the most part is a gimmick as few games beyond Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort truly take advantage of what the controls can do.

PlayStation Move – let’s just say I’m not terribly moved just yet, as it mostly looks like more of the same in terms of simply being a more accurate spin on the sort of control system offered by Nintendo’s Wii. Mind you, greater precision in tracking player movement and delivering enhanced one-to-one motion between the user and what’s happening on-screen are all well and good. But it’s hard to get excited about what is essentially a souped up version of what we’ve seen before, especially with few killer apps or even especially desirable game types demonstrated to date. The onus is definitely on Sony to pull a few rabbits out of the hat now – and they’d damn well better be ones armed with a chaingun or twelve at that.

As for Microsoft’s Project Natal, this technology looks much more promising, in that it effectively eliminates the last physical barrier to entry in terms of user controls, and promises to extend gaming’s appeal to an even larger range of players. Likewise, the possibilities the interface opens in terms of both how we interface with digital information (say, by scrolling through menus or files with the flick of a wrist) and games themselves (in terms of creating a 360-degree field of movement and play) could change the art of game design entirely. However, in the immediate, chances are we’ll mostly see enhanced versions of familiar game titles and types as companies work to come to grips with the hardware, and game makers wrestle to wrap their heads around the options it opens.

The big item still waiting to be answered: Whether they’re a solution in need of a problem. Now that the initial gee-whiz factor has warn off, it’s up to Microsoft and Sony to show what these puppies can do, and quickly and clearly communicate why they won’t simply be casual or party-game devices that play to a limited subset of current Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners.

What games are you most looking forward to and why?

Fallout: New Vegas – love the mix of storytelling and characterization, plus the post-apocalyptic setting and detailed role-playing mechanics. Rage, because it too promises to satisfy my omnipresent Mad Max fetish. God of War: Ghost of Sparta, as it’s nice to know as a parent that I’m not the only one prone to occasional fits of killing rage. Gears of War 3, to help with stress relief. Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 for its chilling atmosphere and slick action-adventure mechanics. Star Wars: The Old Republic, given that it promises to scratch a closet dweeb’s LARPing itch. Deus Ex: Human Revolution – fingers crossed it’s an epic. Zelda Wii and Metroid: Other M, a must as a former Nintendo Fun Club subscriber. And Halo: Reach: Sanity-wise, a little mindless mayhem is sometimes good for us all.

Which games have you been most disappointed in and why?

Let’s just say that I’m not looking forward to many music titles (hello Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock); token sequels (whee, another Dead Space or Medal of Honor); or the ever-predictable range of new first-person shooters and licensed tie-ins. It seems what most disappoints me is mediocrity, or a seeming unwillingness to experiment with new settings or game types. Likewise, I also demand a certain level of depth, maturity and engagement from the titles I play – shred a few more notes or shoot this nameless terrorist just doesn’t do it for me as a motivator these days. Then again, so says the guy who’s mostly playing Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes at the moment, so take it all with a grain of salt, as my hypocrisy apparently knows no bounds.

Tell us your thoughts on digital and cloud

Digital distribution and downloadable content are going to be massively transformative forces in the games industry going forward. While the vast majority of players still haven’t partaken of these vehicles, and offerings have been limited in size and depth thus far, it’s inevitable that this will change in the future. Digital offers tremendous benefits from more accessibly to lower prices, greater selection and added value for players, while simultaneously empowering small studios to take more risks, be less reliant on middlemen and iterate/update games in real-time – healthy developments for all parties involved. Whether you’re talking about games for social networks, downloadable add-ons, iPhone/iPad apps, free-to-play online titles or microtransaction-based services, it’s where the majority of innovation is happening these days.

As for cloud, let’s just say that I’m waiting to be pleasantly surprised. The technology appears extremely compelling – the question is how well these services can deliver on their promise, rapidly roll out high-quality content in anything resembling decent volume and, of course, perform in a real-world context. Cloud computing will take root at some point and in some form, of that you can be certain. But we’re still in the very early days, and serious growing pains lie ahead. Then again, I don’t think anyone at OnLive or Gaikai would tell you that they’re suddenly going to come on the scene and revolutionize the industry overnight. It’ll be a slow and steady process, with such services currently better suited to games with low lag times than anything else. But as technology and overall broadband penetration improves, so too with the quality of their offerings.

What do you look for in the X-Box 720, PS 4, and Wii 2

Less emphasis on boxed retail product, more on digital game downloads. A wider variety of built-in functions that extend these devices’ capabilities beyond base game-playing and further into all facets of home entertainment – and in less rigidly structured ways than offered by current platforms. Complete online connectivity, and the ability to access a massive library of content on-demand. Out of the box support for new technologies such as 3D, cloud computing and advanced motion controls. Greater social networking features and ways for players to connect, compete and tap into a broader array of games that not only offer more persistence, but also effectively travel wherever you do by being transportable across multiple devices. Plus, of course, an autographed picture of Steve Ballmer in every box…

What would you say to people who see the PC as a dead platform for gaming outside of MMORPG gaming?

Ask the 80 million people playing FarmVille and see what they think. But realistically, the PC isn’t dead – it’s simply less attractive financially at the moment, given less hardware standardization; smaller audiences for specific types of titles; greater piracy levels; pricier equipment; and the complexity involved with installing and enjoying games compared to those designed for console offerings. Until it becomes easier and more attractive to publish for larger outfits on these platforms (and plenty of indies still successfully do through vehicles such as Steam, Impulse and GamersGate) though, don’t expect to see as many brand-name blockbuster releases as in the past.

Why do you think video game based movies tend to be so awful as do games based on films?

The easiest way to sum it up would to see this recent column. But three issues tend to torpedo crossover productions: 1. Too many stakeholders with too many agendas at cross-purposes trying to stir the pot 2. A lack of fundamental understanding and respect for the subject matter and 3. The issue that each art form is completely different, and what works well in one medium seldom directly translates well to another.

As a follow up, do you think the amount of criticism Uwe Boll receives is fair?

Yes and no. As a small business owner, I sympathize with and understand what it’s like attempting to build something special with incredibly limited resources. But at the same time, you also know when what you’re selling is complete drek. One has to take a sense of pride in their work. I’m not sure he deserves quite all the vitriol that’s hurled his way – no one deserves to be a practice dummy for the entire Internet. But you know what you’re asking for when you decide to knowingly make yourself a modern-day Ed Wood – you’d think he’d have watched Alone in the Dark enough by now to learn his lesson.

Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in the industry please.

I started out a video game fan, much like anyone else, during the arcade and Atari 2600 days, then moved on to playing Pool of Radiance, Wizardry and other golden/silver-age RPGs on home computers. As a teenager, I was determined to get in the business, and kept calling and nagging publishers until they caved and allowed me to beta test games free, e.g. Alone in the Dark 3 and Blood Bowl. Circa college, I ran a fansite, GameSource.com, which led to press trips and an eventual meeting with French publisher Microids (whose obscure games I knew mostly from downloading off BBS systems). They provided an internship which later turned into a stint as VP of Product Acquisitions, and helping sign SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division and Rage of Mages for publishing in Europe. Somehow, afterwards, I then embarked on a long, strange trip that led to consulting for dozens of leading game publishers; writing for 400+ outlets from The New York Times to Rolling Stone; penning three books (Video Game Marketing and PR, Get Rich Playing Games, The Videogame Style Guide); signing and publishing my own PC CD-ROM titles (e.g. Heavyweight Thunder); and creating everything from critically-acclaimed documentaries to magazines. These days, I run video game consulting company TechSavvy, and have founded industry trade GameExec and online video network Game Industry TV. Sleep, alas, isn’t a forte.

What are your thoughts about so many game and movie sites being part of big corporations and squeezing out the smaller independents who do not have the resources to compete?

As a former member of the latter group myself, it’s disappointing to see so few independents able to compete financially with large-scale operations, and the gap between haves and have-nots become so wide. But at the same time, as the business matures and evolves, it’s evitable that Darwinism has to take effect. On the bright side, I actually think the rise of blogs has helped offset this commercial downswing, bringing literally millions more voices into the conversation that never before could’ve been heard. Hopefully a few will rise to the top and compete from a commercial standpoint, especially as barriers to entry have been all but obliterated in the publishing field. But even if not, it doesn’t mean that their impact on the art and business can’t be just as profound. It just means that many will have to, at least for now, keep that day job.

With E3 and PAX upcoming what do you like about gaming conventions and what would you like to see changed?

What I like is the spirit of community they invoke, and way in which they bring people together to get a sneak peek at many of the hottest titles and trends. In many ways, it’s like Christmas, your birthday and the college experience rolled into one brief (and smelly) gala. But what I don’t like is the exorbitant prices associated with exhibiting, which keep many companies away, or fact that so many of the most exciting developments in the field tend to happen outside their walls, which oftentimes sadly keeps the spotlight focused on the small fraction of individuals/organizations who can afford the cost of party favors.

Gaming has grown beyond a group of hardcore players to more casual and diverse players who would not classify themselves as gamers. To what do you attribute this?

To be blunt, the fact that we as an industry finally woke up and pulled our heads out of our asses. Men, women, young, old… All played games during the golden age during the early ‘80s, when titles were fun, simple and spoke to every background and interest. It wasn’t until the mid-‘80s, when the mostly geeky 18-34 year-old Caucasian male-dominated business started to focus inward and more on making games for others like themselves that these audiences turned away en masse. Don’t get me wrong: I like Left 4 Dead and Gears of War as much as the next guy. But is it really such a mystery why casual games are finally starting to draw women, seniors and other audiences back in any volume?

Beyond this, even those of us who consider ourselves hardcore gamers and grew up with a joystick in hand have had to grow along with the industry. Just as we’ve changed, so too have our gaming habits. Once upon a time, we were all 15 and had 60 hours a week to devote to slaying dragons or rescuing the princess. But when you become a grown adult and working professional, let alone one with a family or business of your own, it’s hard to find as much time – or justify the investment. I’d love to do a speed run through God of War III or Heavy Rain. But sometimes, between a shrieking kid, neglected wife and irate boss, you have to settle for 15 minutes of Dragon’s Lair on the iPhone.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the gaming industry and what can be done about it?

Ignorance and fear, to be frank. In terms of ignorance, while gaming has become more prevalent in pop culture, it still bears an unwholesome stigma in certain circles (the halls of political power, certain mainstream media outlets, etc.), and many times continues to unfairly be labeled a mindless activity for children with little redeeming social or intellectual value. Not that we’re doing much to help matters – despite the average age of today’s gamer being 32, many of the field’s most successful magazines and TV shows continue to treat the audience like it’s composed solely of nerdy teens. And fear in that for too long, even the most successful development studios and publishers have clung to old ways of doing business while the world around them has rapidly evolved, and continues to do so with each passing day. It’s the reason we saw so many studios folding in recent months. To wit, change must happen if our field is to ever grow and mature into an art form that reaches the same heights as film, music or literature. And instead of shying away from addressing the various issues and problems which continue to plague our business from both a cultural and commercial standpoint, it’s high time we stood up and did something about them.


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