Thursday, February 22, 2007

Post-Civil War Predictions

So, the dust has settled, the smoke has cleared, and the Civil War is over. Captain America is in prison, Iron Man is in charge of SHIELD (and by extension, every super-human in the United States), and Registration is the law of the land! Huzzah...wait a second, doesn't that kind of seem like a depressing ending? And doesn't it kind of mean that the entire seven issues were a complete waste of time? Oh, well. It sold, right?

So now the obvious question is, "What happens next?" Here it is, my absolute infallible predictions on the future of the Marvel Universe post-Civil War.

Within five issues, Captain America will either break out or be broken out of the Negative Zone prison. Probably, he'll be the "new Ronin" they're talking about in the pages of 'New Avengers', since the "take up a temporary identity" gimmick is one they've done before for Cap, and it makes a certain amount of sense; he doesn't want to restart the big war, and Cap's a big, tangible symbol of the Resistance. But he's obviously not going to stay in prison for long, because he's got his own series.

Within two years, it will be revealed that Iron Man is either mind controlled, an impostor, or just plain went insane. It will be further revealed that he orchestrated the explosion at Stamford, CT (by maneuvering either the heroes, the villains, or both into that spot) to create the furor that pushed the SHRA into law, all to consolidate super-heroes under his personal control. There'll be another big crossover, Iron Man will be defeated, and the SHRA will be repealed now that everyone sees how dangerous it is to give so much power to one man.

Within five years, there will be a tremendously unconvincing storyline in which Peter Parker pulls a scam to make everyone think that the revelation of Spider-Man's identity was, in turn, a scam; everyone will believe this new scam hook, line, and sinker, allowing Peter to return to his old job at the Daily Bugle.

Within seven years, if Tony Stark was revealed to have just plain gone insane, it will at this time be revealed that he was either mind controlled or an impostor all along, and the real/normal Tony Stark will come back as Iron Man.

Within ten years, Aunt May will be back from the dead, if she was in fact fatally wounded and not just wounded at the end of the latest issue of Spider-Man.

In other words, my prediction for 'Civil War'? In ten years, it'll be as if none of it ever happened. Because there's either two options here. Either one, this is Act One of a grander story that will end with a return to the status quo, or two, Marvel's editorial staff has just made a colossal mistake that they will spend the next decade burying.

You decide!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Big Mistake

I've been thinking about the latest generation of console wars lately, ever since Penny Arcade talked about it on Monday. (Penny Arcade is this little webcomic, kinda deals with videogame-related humor. You might have heard of it.) They basically discussed how Sony's Playstation 3 isn't selling well, and how Sony seems to be dealing with the problem by lying about it.

But all that, I think deals with the situation from the perspective Penny Arcade has, which is the "hardcore gamer" perspective--that is to say, the people who think of videogames as one of their primary interests, and who are willing to shell out the vast majority of their free time and discretional income on videogames. To them, the problem is "Sony's lying." This is like finding out Mommy and Daddy lied to you about giving that puppy to a nice farm where it's much happier.

But I, like many others, am a "casual gamer". For me, videogames are an interest, but they don't consume a lot of my free time (no, I will not tell you how much time I spend playing 'City of Heroes'. It's not much, and I can stop anytime I want.) And they certainly don't consume a lot of my free money--I buy perhaps one video game every couple of months, and I'm not likely to buy more than one video game system. To me (and the people like me), the problem is, "Sony's charging WHAT for a video game system? What does it do, clean the house while I'm asleep?"

This is Son'y big mistake. They simply do not understand their own industry very well. To them, the target market is the "hardcore gamer", the person for whom the lure of newer, faster, better technology is in and of itself enough of a lure to get them to spend a near-unlimited amount of money on a new system. They think all they need to do is say, "It's the Playstation 3. It's better than the Playstation 2, and newer. What are you waiting for?"

But the facts argue against this. When you look at the jump from the Super Nintendo to the Playstation, or the Playstation to the Playstation 2, you see an immediate, shocking, dazzling improvement in the quality of the games and the gaming experience. You see something that immediately convinced you, "This is a much better system." That's not out there with the new generation of systems. The PS3 is better than the PS2, the XBox 360 is better than the XBox, the Wii is better than the GameCube, but not eye-poppingly so.

But the price differences are (for two of the above three.) A Playstation 2 is $130 right out of the box. A Playstation 3 is $600. That means that the Playstation 3 has to be almost five times as good as a Playstation 2 in order to justify buying one. And it's clearly not.

Nintendo understands this logic. They've been paying attention to video game history, and know that what's killed systems isn't quality or lack of same, it's price. The 3DO died at seven hundred dollars, the CD-i died at seven hundred dollars, and the Sega Saturn lost out to the Playstation despite only a one-hundred dollar difference in price. Why? Because to the casual gamer, a hundred bucks is a lot of money to spend on a video game system, and...

(Wait for it, this is my point...)

The casual gamer, not the hardcore gamer, determines the success or failure of a system. Nintendo gets this, Sony doesn't, which is why the Wii is punishing the PS3 in sales right now. Because the average person looking to buy a new video game system sees "System A, $600" and "System B, $250", and says, "I think I'll buy the $250 one, thanks. $600 is a lot of money to spend on a video game system." (This also applies in the hand-held realm, where the Sony PSP is $200 and the Nintendo DS is $130. Sure, the PSP is no doubt better...but seventy dollars is a lot of money to the casual gamer.) And while the hardcore gamer spends a lot more of his or her disposable income on videogames, the numbers of casual gamers so overwhelm those of hardcore gamers that it's a better marketing strategy to aim at the casual gamer than the hardcore one. You can make more money by selling a cheap product to every household in America than you can by selling an expensive one to one out of every 100.

Of course, in an ideal world, Sony would be able to use its initial sales to drop prices, and eventually bring the PS3 down to what a casual gamer would pay. But when you start with a $300 handicap, that's going to be very difficult. Most casual gamers wouldn't even pay $300 for a new system, preferring to wait until the price gets closer to the $200 mark (or even less); this means that the Wii treads close to the casual gamer's price point at launch, while the PS3 has to cut their prices to a third of what they're charging now to catch up. (I've not mentioned the XBox 360 much, because the PS3 charges more and therefore makes a better example of the economics involved; but since it's $400, assume it's somewhere between the Wii and the PS3 in terms of its situation. If the history of the console wars is ever written, though, it'll be very important--Microsoft's charge at "hardcore gamers" with the XBox made Sony get into the "hardware wars" instead of "price wars" to begin with.)

Does this mean that Sony is doomed? Probably not. Everyone predicted disaster for them with the PS2 launch, after all, and they weathered that storm fine. (Although note that the PS2 launched at $300.) But they could be unpleasantly surprised at the speed at which the Playstation's dominance in the video-game industry gets overturned; Nintendo lost its hold in a single generation, when the Playstation overthrew the N64, and history could be reversing itself.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Question of the Day

If Green Arrow had named his sidekick "Junkie", would he have become addicted to amphetamines?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Cult Fiction

I seem to be finding myself in a never-ending hall of mirrors when it comes to talking about pop culture; I've now written six columns talking about "storytelling engines", which was at least six more columns than I expected to be, and my discussion of golden ages in pop culture threw up the "archive factor", and while I was talking about that, I wound up coming up with the term "cult fiction." God help me if I come up with some new weird term this time; I already feel like I'm babbling self-indulgently as it is when I talk about this stuff, and this paragraph isn't helping one little bit.

But I do think I'm onto something with this "cult fiction" idea, because I think there is a certain common thread that links movies, TV shows, books, et cetera, beyond just "it's science fiction", or "it's fantasy", or "it's action-adventure." There's a certain ethos to them that seems to attract a certain sort of person; sit a person down who likes science fiction in front of a TV set showing 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', for example, and odds are it will be exactly the sort of thing they're into, even if they didn't necessarily know it before they watched it. There's a common thread that links 'Firefly', 'Doctor Who', 'Alias', 'Heroes', 'Mr. Show', 'Shaun of the Dead', 'Rumble in the Bronx', 'Casino Royale', Harry Potter, the X-Men, and 'Better Off Dead' in such a way that geeks like me will give them a look, even if they turn out not to like them. But what is it?

Ultimately, I think the only thing they have in common is that they all present the world, in some way, as stranger than real life. This is most overt in science-fiction, which is why I think that it all tends to get lumped in as sci-fi, but even the non-science-fiction series like '24' or 'Alias' show a world which is bigger, more dangerous, more exciting, and more vivid than the one we live in every day. (And sketch comedy shows, almost by definition, explore a "stranger than life" idea to its logical conclusion--like the Lumberjack sketch, for example.) I think this is what we're attracted to, the idea that we live in a super-interesting universe, and that these are looks around the corner to the bits that we don't usually see. Bits where kids can build a working space shuttle out of stuff they send away from on cereal boxes, bits where hidden wizard academies teach the sorcerers of tomorrow; bits, in short, that we can always imagine ourselves just about to stumble into.

"Stranger than life." It's as good a definition for "cult fiction" as anything.