Archive for September 2013

Tomb Raider is Really, Really Good

Here’s a great example of me wondering if I’m having a contrarian opinion just to have one, but here it is anyway: I thought Tomb Raider was a much better game than Last of Us.

I know, Last of Us has a superior story. Tomb Raider’s story could be best described as ‘imagine if the writers of Lost explained what was going on!’  Also, while there were interesting goings-ons in the various journals and artifacts you found throughout the island, the characters with actual speaking roles were little more than caricatures.  Also, I realize that working at Bioware has morphed me into being a VO snob, but other than Lara herself, the VO in TR ranges all the way from ‘bad’ to ‘dear lord godawful’.  There is certainly no one with the writing and depth of Ellie from LoU.

That being said, Last of Us suffered most from the fact that the game design completely undercut the story – a stealth game where your sidekick girl was too stupid to hide from zombies, in a world where human life is precious but not so precious that you don’t kill every damn person you meet.  Tomb Raider was trying to sell a different fantasy – to make an interactive Indiana Jones movie – and in this regard, they did an admirable job.  In particular, the adrenaline sequences (sliding down waterfalls, dodging avalanches) are masterfully done, and completely pull you in.

A lot of hay has been made about Lara Croft starting vulnerable and weak, but from my point of view, this was one of the strongest thing about the experience.  Everything about Lara starts off hesitant and uncertain, and its really gratifying to play her as she starts to earn her swagger.

Other notes:

  • Unlike LoU, guns actually work on this island!  At any rate, it was possible to kill people with guns.
  • It may be time for me to play a pure stealth game, because I’ve played two games in a row now where it teases you with the potential of stealth, and then forces you into way too many open gunfights.
  • Lara Croft has so many different pain gasps, heavy breathing and other gutteral exclamations that one can only imagine the cold sweats that must have broken out in that recording session.

Would play again.  Next on the docket is Hitman: Absolution, because the trailer promised me leather-clad nuns.


Goodbye, Diablo 3 Auction House

The trick with playing with real money is when you start letting that real money drive game design decisions – or even give the appearance of doing so.  When Diablo III launched last summer, most people (myself included) felt like the game just wasn’t as sticky as it was in the old days.  Since the one thing that was significantly changed in the design was the introduction of the Auction House (for either real money or in-game gold), this was pointed to as a culprit- clearly, said the players, loot rates were driven down to make people used the auction house (this link is a very good read, btw).

Diablo 3 has no real reward loop – there is only a frustration loop, which can be temporarily alleviated by using the Auction House. As the game progresses in the hardest difficulty (Inferno), the frustration part of the loop gets longer and longer, as upgrades become more and more difficult to buy…. New players will not experience Diablo 2’s reward loop, and will not get hooked. They will enjoy the game, get to the end, and (for the most part) wonder what the big fuss was about, lose interest, and wander away….

Out of necessity, Diablo 3’s reward system has to account for the Auction House. Because equipment is never destroyed, in-game rewards can never be too frequent or powerful or they will flood the Auction House, eventually trivializing game difficulty. There have been many solutions proposed (here is one particularly insightful discussion), but the reward system seems so intertwined with the Auction House that it’s difficult to see a radical change coming.

One of the interesting points made by the players was that the issues were made worse because the playerbase was so much larger.

 Even World of Warcraft‘s auction houses exhibit roughly the same behaviour because each shard contains only about 5,000 players. But when you find what looks like a good item in Diablo III, it inevitably turns out to be not quite as good as you thought because there are so many better ones already on the auction house. If you can see the farming output of millions of players and compare it to your own findings, of course your loot is going to seem like crap.

No matter what the truth, the players will want to assume the worst out of the developers.

Cheng’s comments are a blatant lie, and while a lot of people claim that this voids Blizzard of fixing loot drops, it actually confirms it. You see, there is no single-player offline mode, so what is Cheng talking about fixing rates for players who never use the Auction House?

In a postmortem of the game in March, former game director Jay Wilson admitted that it hurt the game in unforeseen ways.

Wilson said that before Blizzard launched the game, the company had a few assumptions about how the Auction Houses would work: He thought they would help reduce fraud, that they’d provide a wanted service to players, that only a small percentage of players would use it and that the price of items would limit how many were listed and sold.

But he said that once the game went live, Blizzard realized it was completely wrong about those last two points. It turns out that nearly every one of the game’s players made use of either house, and that over 50% of players used it regularly. That, said Wilson, made money a much higher motivator than the game’s original motivation to simply kill Diablo, and “damaged item rewards” in the game.

Even though Wilson believes the RMAH has accomplished the goal of reducing account fraud (third-party Diablo 2 item trading sites frequently stole passwords and credit card information), and asserts that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many people do want it based on the number of transactions happening daily, Wilson now freely admits it was “the wrong solution” to the problems Blizzard was trying to solve. “It’s not good for a game like Diablo. It doesn’t feel good to get items for money, it feels good to get items by killing monsters,” he said, echoing the complaints of a vocal group of fans.

It didn’t help that the economy quickly hyperinflated, helped largely by a couple of untimely dupe bugs.

Although its anonymity may make it subject to skepticism, several weeks after the game’s debut a source claimed that there were at least 1,000 bots active 24/7 in the Diablo 3game world, allegedly “harvesting” (producing) 4 million virtual gold per hour.[4] Most of the gold generated by the ruthlessly productive, rapidly adapting bots found its way to third party vendors in a black market which undercut the prices in the sanctioned, in-game auction houses… An exasperated player complained in August 2012: “I purchased most of my gear for around 5 mil [gold] early on. I’ve been farming for awhile [and] have saved around 30 million gold [but now] I can’t upgrade the gear I have … Where is all this money coming from? Why is everything so expensive?”

It would seem it is time for this experiment to end.  Today, Blizzard announced that they will be removing the Auction House as part of the next Expansion pack.

“When we initially designed and implemented the auction houses, the driving goal was to provide a convenient and secure system for trades,” reads the post. “But as we’ve mentioned on different occasions, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the [auction house] system and the fact that many players around the world use it, it ultimately undermines Diablo‘s core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot.”  The auction house will be shut down on March 18, 2014.

Which once again goes to show, screw with your core game loop at your own peril.

Free 2 Play is Not a Cancer (Unless It Is)

Sometime ago, someone sent me this article, in which a Free-to-Play designer described how he is not a ‘cancer’ on the games industry.  I read it, but I didn’t fully agree with it, but it took me a little while to figure out what’s wrong with it.

This is it:

You see, game development is a business and businesses in a capitalist society are ruled by market forces….But games like those published by Electronic Arts are paid for by the people who own stock in the company. At the end of the day, these investors do not care about artistic integrity, Metacritic score or DRM solutions, they only care about stock price and return on investment

Okay, a little preachy.  But preachy isn’t what bugs me.

When a developer loses her job—when she’s got rent to make and bills to pay—she needs to find new work. More and more, jobs are coming in the form of games that do not cater to the core Gamer who reads Kotaku. Gaming as an industry has been expanding outward for a long time and increasingly, the “Gamer” is becoming a less relevant part of the overall gaming pie as more dollars are spent on free-to-play games for mobile/tablet, PC and now consoles too.

See it yet?

Most of the article talks about desperate developers who have to get a job to survive.  Your average Kotaku reader does not care about the plights of poor developers.  They care about their games changing in a way they can’t control.

Most other articles about Free 2 Play make a similar, unforced error.  They are on game development sites like Gamasutra, and are eager to explain why Free 2 Play is wonderful – for DEVELOPERS AND PUBLISHERS.  They throw around discussions of increased concurrency, ARPU, savings on inventory, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera.

There is shockingly little on the Internet, it turns out, that talks about how Free to Play is good for the PLAYERS.  How millions of players do get thousands of hours of gameplay for free, and the vast majority pay less than they would if they bought a $60 box.  How MMOs that go free end up filling up their worlds and becoming interesting and lively social spaces.  How game developers no longer can try to fool you into buying a $60 dollar box, or do unholy things to try to pressure you into never leaving and maximizing subscription revenue.

Free 2 Play can be very good for gamers, and we should be coaching it in these terms more.  Right now, the hardcore gamers who dislike Free 2 Play dominate the conversation, and get nothing but echoes in return – despite the fact that they are rapidly becoming the minority. Skeptics are just too eager to ascribe the worst motives to game companies, and to assume that the worst practices of the worst games are how all games must monetize.  More should be done to explain that Free is good, and not just because its free.

And if your Free 2 Play model isn’t good for gamers?

Well, then you’re not going to be around for very long anyway.

Penny Arcade is Still Mostly A Force For Good

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: it’s pretty much criminally stupid to put out a t-shirt of what effectively has become the spirit animal of the worst mouthbreathing misogynistic trolls on the Internet, and then act surprised when it becomes a thing.  That’s not nearly as stupid as publically saying you regret taking it down.  So there’s that, and I won’t defend it.

That being said, I love PAX.  It is currently the best game show available, largely because it was organized by gamers, for gamers, and the event therefore feels like a real and genuine love affair with gaming, completely unlike the publisher-driven plastic-coated circle-jerk that is E3. The gaming is great, the independent games portion is a feast for people like me, and the convention has a hundred little subcommunities that are all welcoming and affirm your love for gaming.  I will continue to love PAX.  Despite the fact that it no longer is cool to do so.

My Facebook feed is currently full of outrage towards the Return of the Dickwolf (General summary here).  In a recent Q&A at PAX, Mike of Penny Arcade said that he felt that removing the Dickwolves shirt they briefly sold was a mistake – to generally horrifying applause from the audience.  To Mike, who is first and foremost a humorist, the Dickwolf shirt is a statement about free speech.  Comedians of all stripes tend to be among the most vocal defenders of free speech you’ll find in the world, because it’s almost impossible to do anything other than the Family Circus unless you’re willing to offend someone.  But in this case, the point was lost on Mike – the Dickwolf shirt was and is a bad idea because it effectively says to some in the audience (particularly women) ‘I’m on Team Rapist’.

Which is not cool.

Despite Mike’s statement, Dickwolf shirts have not made a reappearance on the Penny Arcade store.  (Surprisingly, you can’t even get one on eBay).  Which means that Mike is effectively being pilloried for having an opinion regarding comedy and political correctness.

Which is also not cool.

One of the things that is infuriating about reading about any Penny Arcade debacle (and yes, it’s not good that that’s a plural) is how quickly it escalates to stupid – on both sides.  People who criticized PA were receiving death threats.  But so was PA.  PA was absolutely unwilling to admit they were wrong.  So were their critics.  Their critics tend to be women, and are very invested in the cause of reducing the amount of douchebaggery that women face in games.  Cartoonists are very invested in the cause of protecting their freedom of speech.

For (mostly) better and (somewhat) for worse, Mike and Jerry are now an important, major voice of gamers in the industry.  I suspect that Mike and Gabe wake up in the morning and wonder how the hell they became a cultural force that suddenly has to play nice across cultural bounds.  If their comic had a fanbase the size of, say, Sinfest’s, this would be a non-issue.  But the fact that they’re a major brand, complete with a convention, a web magazine and whatnot, means they are a major force.  Plus, their audience is monstrous in size and utterly devoted to them . The fans will fight to the death for them, even sometimes when the PA guys ask them not to – Penny Arcade has made one of the greatest gaming communities on the planet, but they’ve also created a monster they can’t entirely control.  All this means that when they say something you disagree with, it quickly becomes a thing.  And now, likewise, saying you’re going to boycott or not go is also becoming a thing.

Let’s take a step back for a second, and consider the possibility that perhaps, even if you happen to think this event is reprehensible and some subset of their audience is beyond hope, that Penny Arcade is on top of all of this one of the most positive and progressive major voices in gaming.

And this is all supposed to be undone because a humorist would fight to the death over the ideal that he should be able to tell unpopular jokes that might offend some parties?  Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and George Carlin are all spinning in their graves enough to drill into diamond.

Elizabeth Sampat is one of the most widely quoted of the critics:

But I have to go for work! PAX is mandatory in the game industry or you fail!

That is total bullshit. If you are the person deciding to bring your game to PAX: the game industry existed long before Penny Arcade and it will exist for a long time after. You can be successful without PAX, just ask The Fullbright Company. And if you’re an employee being told to go to PAX: does your company know how shitty the Penny Arcade guys are? Maybe tell them. If you’re afraid it will sound too personal, you can just link them to this article where the Financial Post compares Mike to Chris Brown. That’ll sound plenty official.

But there are no other cool conventions to go to!

I already linked Geek Girl Con and GaymerX. There’s also GenCon, Dreamation, DexCon, DragonCon (who successfully ousted their gross owner!) and a million others. You can do this. I believe in you.

First off, doing tiny cons is not usually very cost efficient unless a sizeable game audience is there.  GeekGirlCon has a population of 4000.  GaymerX is about 2000.  Building a pre-release demo build of a game is incredibly time-consuming and demanding, and not worth it for those tiny numbers.  Each of the American PAX shows, by contrast, draws more than 70,000 fans.  Building a demo for that is effectively what allows game companies to hit these smaller shows. Also, it goes without saying that if you’re a small indy company who can only do two conventions per year, reaching 140K potential customers is a lot better than reaching 6K.  I guess you could just do E3 — but joe and jane consumer can’t get into that.

Secondly, given that passes for PAX sell out in less than a day, I very much doubt there will be much financial impact to them if a minority of gamers opt to boycott.  You might push that sell out to two days.  Worse, the douchebag ratio will only increase negatively.

Third, game culture is in desperate need of dedouchification, but you don’t change public opinion by preaching to the converted.  You don’t need to sell girls on Geek Girl Con that the concept of ‘fake geek girls’ is broken and insulting.  You don’t need to sell GaymerX attendees that trans gamers need understanding.  You need to bring this understanding to the gaming audience at large.  In America, that audience’s largest gathering is PAX.

Bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is.  If you are an activist who wants to enact social change in the gaming community, you need to go where the gamers are.  You can set up talks, you can challenge the PAX guys to give you a booth like they did AbleGamers, you can organize protests, you can set up debates, you can wear coordinated T-Shirts designed to shame and expose douchebaggery in all its forms.  Or, you can run away and hope somehow that the problem fixes itself.  Turning the largest american consumer-oriented gaming show into even more of a sausage fest makes it pretty unlikely that that’s going to happen.

You know how you beat a free speech zealot?  Challenge him to give you the megaphone.

(By attending), [y]ou are giving them something more valuable than money: legitimacy.

This reminds me of when the Obama White House tried to delegitimize Fox News by taking away their front-row seat in the press briefing room.  It didn’t work – Fox News is already legitimate in the eyes of their viewers.  All the White House did was worsen their relationship with an important news outlet and create a martyr in the eyes of their viewers.

But yeah, Mike saying he wishes they didn’t take the t-shirt off the store was mindbendingly stupid, in oh so many ways.