While Nvidia’s Project Shield left plenty of people cooing when it was first announced, Matthew Lee wasn’t so impressed. Here, he takes a look at Nvidia’s marketing strategy to date, and questions if they’re really doing enough to win over those who love games most.
Imagine you’re a PC gamer who’s about to shell out for a new high-end video card. There are any number of variables that might sway your decision one way or the other. Your budget, say. The current state of your PC, and whether whatever you buy is likely to play nice with what you’ve got in there already. Your brand loyalty in general, much as you know it’s kind of dumb to plump for AMD just because they’re the underdog.
In most cases, though, the free software bundled with the various different cards you could be buying is probably not going to be that much motivation. Giveaway games tend to be at least a year or two out of date, and you know full well they’re just an attempt to sweeten the deal, more a case of the manufacturer trying for some last-ditch good PR than a gesture of goodwill.
So imagine the manufacturer in question is offering an exclusive. But not just any exclusive. Let’s say it’s a newly announced port – exclusive to this line of graphics cards – of the ill-fated Playstation 3 first-person shooter Haze. But it’s got new and improved DirectX 11.1 shaders! Extra dynamic lighting! More shadows! Support for up to six monitors and VR headsets! Are you excited yet?
Lost in a Haze
Seriously, though, this would be weird, right? You could slap on all the extra bullet points you want, but it’d still be the same game underneath, a five-year-old trainwreck largely mocked by whatever critics and members of the public who actually remember it existed. No-one would actually think such a thing was worth paying a premium for, would they? Well, take a look at Nvidia’s smartphone and tablet division, and ask that question again.
Nvidia have been putting their Tegra chips inside mobile computing devices since 2008. The numbers keep going up: they’ve been following a ruthless program of exponential advances in processing power roughly year on year, with a marketing blitz designed to get people thinking if your phone or tablet doesn’t have a Tegra inside, it’s nothing. At the same time, they’ve consistently demonstrated a slightly shaky grasp of what exactly makes this breakneck pace of research and development worth it.
Nvidia lock selected mobile games so they’ll only run on hardware with a Tegra chip (even when other chips are more than powerful enough). Developers restrict extra visual bells and whistles to Tegra systems. Nvidia have their own app store selling Tegra-enabled software, so you’d assume they sincerely believe all these platform exclusives are worth the hoopla, or at least that they think they’re going to persuade consumers to buy into Tegra rather than the competition.
And yet when Nvidia announced the next stage of their roadmap (at the two big trade shows, CES and Mobile World Congress) what were the first flagship games for the new Tegra 4? The only ones with any name recognition were Burn, Zombie, Burn, a twin-stick shooter which sank quietly out of sight on PS3 and PC four years ago, and Zombie Driver, a four-year-old arcade combat game running on the freeware Ogre3D graphics engine.
But shadows! Seriously, the lure of extra shadows on Zombie Driver is apparently supposed to set cash registers (or, well, online checkouts) ringing across the globe. A four-year-old minor indie release commanding 60% on Metacritic (yes, yes, I know, but still) where you drive a car and run zombies over is meant to sway people into giving several hundred dollars to one of Nvidia’s partners instead of the alternatives. Because there are extra shadows in it.
Oh, but perhaps they’re saving the good stuff for their upcoming handheld console, Project Shield? I mean, this is a company jumping head first into a market in which they’ve got absolutely no prior experience, so the games for this new hardware will have to be awesome, right? Well, so far the ones getting the most airtime would seem to be the sequels to Dead Trigger (shoot zombies) and Riptide 2 (ride jetskis).
No-one’s played these extensively yet, but we’re talking about creating a good impression as much as handing out cast-iron guarantees. What about either of these franchises would convince anyone these new games would be killer apps? Dead Trigger was technically excellent, but as shallow as mobile games get, and Riptide was by and large a poor man’s Wave Race: fun, and shiny enough, but markedly lacking in that triple-A polish.
Some people would probably say mobile games just aren’t that great, period. I disagree. Over the past two or three years I’ve spent playing on Android and iOS, both systems have given me some of my favourite games ever. But Nvidia seem to think just slapping their brand on anything is enough to shift millions of units. It’s disturbing at best – are people really won over by uninspired clones and ports long past their sell by date?
At worst it paints Nvidia as downright clueless. If they want long-time players to buy into the idea smartphones and tablets will replace handheld consoles, there are far better exclusives Nvidia could sign. Let Square Enix name their price and get a new Chaos Rings game as a time-limited Android exclusive. Pay Electronic Arts for the next Real Racing. Sponsor Sega’s Heritage series of Dreamcast ports.
And at times it feels as if they’ve plain forgotten the good games they did sign up – Phosphor’s Dark Meadow and Horn were two of the strongest third-person action titles on iOS, for example; two captivating triple-A quality adventures the equal of countless “proper” console games. Barely a word out of Nvidia about how the only way to play either on Android is to own a Tegra system – never mind extra shadows, you can’t even get the damn thing otherwise.
No, they’d rather shill for The Conduit. Oh, joy, now I can play an ancient Wii exclusive first-person shooter that fell flat on its face at launch and sent the developers back to licensed shovelware to pay the bills! That’ll help ease the pain when this over-priced tablet becomes essentially obsolete in twelve months time, tops! Was there anyone who was actually hoping this would be announced? And if so, could you explain why?
There’s no question Nvidia include a lot of very smart, talented people in their ranks. Their efforts to advance the state of mobile hardware has helped bring the various platforms closer to full-blown consoles than ever before, and the gap is closing faster every year. But this bizarre and somewhat scattershot approach to touting this side of their business is arguably doing them no favours.
It’s uncomfortably close to Microsoft’s erratic attitude to playing games on a PC, as if Nvidia don’t really understand what anyone beyond the most casual of casual consumers actually enjoys, or why. It’s clearly not holding them back, but imagine if Nvidia could get their act together. If they could actually make a Tegra chip mean more than numbers going up, or extra shadows nobody asked for, there’d be no stopping them. Acting as if they actually want to win players’ hearts and minds would be a start.