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Radio 4's consumer affairs programme

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You & Yours

New Ways to Play Videogames Announced in California

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Steven Williams | 12:13 UK time, Wednesday, 6 June 2012

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Andy Robertson

The overall theme of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo was the fight back of the console in response to the rapidly rising popularity of games on smartphones and tablet devices. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony all competed for attention with a range of announcements that aimed to win back consumer's interest in videogame consoles.

Microsoft was the first to take to the stage in Los Angeles on Monday. Among a wide range of announcements, its new SmartGlass concept stood out. It's a new way to use smart phones and tablets to control the Xbox 360 and promises to make it easier to find content using the touch screen before "sending" it to the TV.

Once the content has started playing, complementary information is displayed on the touch screen devices. For example a map that depicts the location of a current scene, or information about the cast. There isn't a firm date yet for this to come to market. It'll be interesting to see how close to concept SmartGlass is by the time it reaches consumers. There are still a number of technical and commercial barriers to sort out between now and when the service launches.

At Sony's press conference on Monday afternoon, a range of new features for their PlayStation 3 and PS Vita games consoles were announced. Most striking is the Wonderbook accessory that creates a new way to play a videogame using the metaphor of a traditional book.

Players are invited to place a blank story book in-front of the PlayStation Eye camera which is then transformed into a virtual pop-up book on your TV screen. Players can interact with the story using the PlayStation's Move controller - the equivalent to Nintendo's motion sensitive remote control.

When it launches in the autumn a number of books will be available, including a title called Book of Spells from J K Rowling. In addition to delivering great content, the reliability of the experience will be key for consumers - something underlined by demonstration difficulties in the press conference.

Nintendo held their press conference last, on Tuesday morning. Having announced the Wii U last year, Nintendo's task was to persuade consumers why they should invest in what is essentially the Wii mark 2.0.

The answer revolves around its new Wii U Controller. This adds a tablet-style screen to the traditional game controls to offer new ways to play. One player can use the Wii U Controller with extra information from the screen in a different role to other players who use the old style Wii Remote.

Enhanced HD graphics and new style Wii U games are the other key incentive and mean it can compete for enthusiast gamers who have previously migrated towards Microsoft and Sony. Unlike Microsoft's Kinect accessory, the Wii U Controller requires a new console and replaces the original Wii. Again a firm date and price has not yet been announced for release.

Despite the glitz and the glamour, it remains to be seen whether these gaming console products and experiences will attract public attention away from cheaper, shorter games on phones and tablets. Watch this space.

Andy Robertson is a Family Gaming expert and presents the Family Gamer TV show

Avoid Overspending on Skylanders

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A&M CSD | 11:18 UK time, Friday, 10 February 2012

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Skylander characters

If you've not come across it already Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is a videogame that launched last year. In it players explore a fantasy cartoon world to earn points and unlock new levels. It's unusual because it uses toy action figures to access characters in the game.

The game is designed for children 7yrs and older. It comes with a set of three toy figures that are placed on a Portal peripheral (a small grey box connected to the videogame console) to access the related character in the game. Progress made in the game is then automatically recorded on the toy with no wires or pressing of buttons.

Children can take the toy figure to a friend's house and play the game on their console to access the progress they made with their character. This works across different types of videogame console and greatly simplifies switching characters in the game and saving progress.

However, some parents have been critical of the videos that play in the game to advertise the other toy figures in the range. Skylanders supports 30 of these characters that are purchased separately for £6.99 or in packs of three for £19.99.

It is this method of restricting access to characters in the game that is both revolutionary and controversial. Videogames have traditionally granted new characters and levels as a reward for good play and in-game achievements. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is different because it only grants access to new characters once a player has purchased the related toy. To access everything in the game would require you to purchase every character at a cost of hundreds of pounds.

Frustrations have been exasperated by the popularity of the toy figures that has made them hard to find in stores or online. This has also led to the most desirable figures being sold second hand for many times their recommended retail value.
This week in New York, publisher Activision announced the next game in the series: Skylanders Giants. This adds larger toy figures to the range as well characters that light up when placed on the Portal peripheral.

Skylanders Giants will be available at the end of the year and will support all the toy figures (and portal) from the first game while introducing various new characters and special edition models. This leads to further questions about how the new game will be priced and packaged, and for fans of the series whether availability issues will be resolved.

For parents the key to this problem is in understanding what you do and don't need to purchase to play the game. While there is an inescapable desire from children to collect the toy figures they can actually play through to the end of the game using just the three figures that come with the starter pack (£49.99).

This offers an adventure that will take most players a good 20 hours. The experience is extended with a range of battle modes and challenges where players can pit their starter pack characters against each other.

In terms of value for money, younger players are best placed to benefit. They can find value in both the videogame and the toys themselves. The Skylanders starter pack is priced a little higher than other games, but does include three starter figures and the Portal peripheral. The action figures' £6.99 price is on a par with other toy characters of a similar style and quality.

While we are used to seeing adverts and product placement in other entertainment aimed at children, such a hard sell in a videogame can be a little surprising. Parents should play the game with their children to gain a full picture of how commercial (and enjoyable) the experience is.


Andy Robertson is a Family Gaming expert and presents the Family Gamer TV show.

What Nintendo's Wii U Offers Families

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A&M CSD | 16:48 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

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Geek Dad, Andy Robertson

The financial outlook isn't currently rosy for Nintendo. They have just reported a net loss of 48.4bn Yen (£400 million) in the nine months up to the end of December - the first time in 30 years they have reported a loss instead of a profit.

Beyond the difficulties Nintendo have from the Yen, which has seen 53bn Yen lost from its balance sheet, sales of both the Wii and DS have declined while the 3DS hasn't yet performed as well as hoped. While the 3DS's sluggish start was improved by a substantial price cut and the addition of more first party games (starting Nintendo's popular Mario character), it is now under pressure with the release of Sony's more powerful PS Vita portable.

The transition to the next generation of Wii and DS consoles was always going to be a difficult period. The rise of Smartphones means that very cheap and accessible games are now available to a much wider audience -- just the sort of people Nintendo had been winning over to the Wii and DS.

The 3DS addressed this issue with its own app store (the eShop) where you can download new games as well as re-releases of classic Nintendo titles. Recent announcements for the Wii U have promised an expanded delivery of downloadable games.

The Wii U aims to be the next generation of console for those who have enjoyed the Wii. It offers a tablet-like controller that incorporates a large screen. This creates new ways to play games together as a family and will offer fresh opportunities for game developers to innovate. The Wii U controller can be used as a standalone portable gaming device around the home, or in conjunction with a TV for multi-player multi-screen experiences.
The Wii U, which comprises both a new console and controller, is due to be launched later in 2012. The challenge it faces is winning over consumers who already have similar technology in their Smartphone and Tablet computers. In particular some of its novel features announced last June have been encroached on by the iPad and PS Vita, both of which enable you to play games across multiple screens as well as away from the main TV.

Additionally, there is growing competition from XBox 360 Kinect (that enables you to play games by moving your body in front of a camera) and PlayStation 3's motion control Move system (that offers a HD Wii-like experience). This is a much more crowded space than when the Wii first came to market.

Nintendo still have a number of cards to play though. Although much of the Wii U functionality exists on other systems, the promise of playing classic Nintendo franchises with better graphics and new controls will persuade many of the Wii's existing users to upgrade. Nintendo's is good at supporting its hardware with tailor made experiences from a wide stable of first party games. Wii-Sports and a series of related titles on the Wii ensured that that console offered good value.

The Wii U also makes use of the existing Wii controllers, which are used in conjunction with the new screen based version, to offer more ways to play together. It can also offer high definition graphics in a way that the original Wii was slightly lacking. This will court more avid gamers who were previously left a little cold by the Wii's less impressive visuals.

Providing these innovations can be delivered in an accessible way for consumers the Wii U will be an interesting proposition when it launches later in 2012.

Andy Robertson is a Family Gaming expert and presents the Family Gamer TV show.

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