Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steel Battalion 2 a Genius Move (Kinect?) by Microsoft

Just heard about Capcom's new Steel Battalion game from Angry Joe. Now, Joe's reaction was less than optimistic, but he was coming from the perspective of a long term fan of what will now be the Steel Battalion franchise. My reaction, having not played the original game and being only familiar with its infamous controller, has been somewhat different. The title itself seems less important here than what it represents in the ongoing struggle between Microsoft and Sony.

It's no secret that we are currently at the beginning of Microsoft and Sony's mounting motion war. The Nintendo let out the opening salvos with the Wii's surprise attack, but the overwhelming retaliations from Microsoft and Sony have left the big N a casualty of this war. Everyone but Nintendo seems to know this. The Move is, after all, essentially a Wiimote ++. That is, however, the recent past. Looking forward, the big question is who will win. It seems inevitable that one of these two very different approaches will eventually conquer the market, forcing the other side to return to the drawing board.

What Steel Battalion represents is a conscious marketing choice by Microsoft. They know why the Wii has begun to fail, and why the Move has thus far not had the phenomenal success that Sony had hoped for. It's all about the "casual" and "hardcore" markets.

While the Wii had a huge initial sales bubble, that was not fueled by the gaming market. While many eager gamers, including myself, did buy the system, the radical numbers where due to a second market. This market, commonly referred to as the "casual" gamer, does not care about video games. They don't self identify as gamers because it's not necessarily a hobby of theirs or even something they would, Wiimote in hand, even consider enjoying. The thing is that the Wii is, to them, not a video game console. It is toy. They don't play games on their Wii, they play Wii - meaning Wii Sports for the vast majority, aswell as Wii Play, Wii Fit, and a handful of other casual party games. The problem presented here is that this market is now dwindling. They bought their Wiis, yet have failed to buy games for them. They have their toy, and are satisfied. Developers have, however, continued to produce shelves full of low quality shovel-ware for the system, aiming at this evaporating market.

Meanwhile, the "hardcore" market, representing long term hobbyists, self identifying gamers, have largely felt ostracized by this practice. They've grown tired of the long waits between games marketed towards them, and the inevitable inferiority of these products to experiences offered on other consoles. After all, The Conduit is "the best shooter, on the Wii," not the best shooter. Many feel like Nintendo left their old friends out in the rain, and are now wary about returning to them as they begin to court old markets again. This has extended to an overall distaste with motion gaming throughout the gaming populace, as this market perceives the trend to have a deleterious effect on the quality of game releases.

For Sony, the problem lies with their release titles. Every one easily fits into that casual market niche which the "hardcore" market has grown so disdainful for. Much like the PS3's original audience, Sony is again seeing that gamers do not buy hardware unless there is software to support it. Gamers do not buy a PS3, then find games for it, they buy a game and whatever they need to play that title. Unfortunately for Sony, much of even their most devoted fanbase sees the Move and Wii as direct analogs.

Steel Battalion 2 is Microsoft's way of not simply shrugging off this casual mantle, but throwing it into the fire. They have taken one of the most "hardcore" titles ever, one that even most of "hardcore" crowd were not invested enough to get into, and made it a near launch title. It would be like casting Mike Tyson, George Carlin, and Bob Saget (warning, links extremely NSFW) because you were worried that people might think you're making a kids movie. It's a nuclear payload of "for gamers" marketing. Suddenly, something which may have been perceived as beneath the "hardcore" is thrown over their heads. Unlike the original Steel Battalion, however, Microsoft hopes that the lower initial investment won't scare away consumers.

Weather or not the title even sells, it should accomplish Microsoft's goals. With titles like this in the pipeline, though not likely at release, Kinect can not be perceived entirely as a casual experience. Microsoft has at least one complex, made for mainstream gamers title they can hold up as proof that Kinect is not a gimmick but a legitimate gaming peripheral. Furthermore, there is no more perfect a title to capitalize on the Kinect's other big selling point, the inherent removal of third party peripherals. Any bundle which could get

So, long story short, I wouldn't be surprised if it was Microsoft, not Capcom, that first approached the other about this project. I wonder if this sequel would have even ever come out if not for its viability as a Kinect proving ground. In this way, at least, Joe and his fellow Steel Battalion fans should be thankful for the Kinect support.

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