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I Watch Anita Sarkeesian So You Don’t Have To. But You Should.

So, my Twitter feed has been full of people who believe that Anita Sarkeesian wants to corrupt my brain, and convert me into being an SJW zombie, thus ruining every game that I ever make.  Because I have no free will and am part of the politically correct machine, I watched most of her video-game oriented videos.  And I gotta say, watching these videos really made me angry.  Because she spoiled the ending to about a couple dozen games I haven’t finished.  Seriously, Anita, a spoilers tag is customary here!

Now because I want to save any of you from becoming sheeple who might be infected by an opposing view by actually watching and considering her work on its actual merits, I thought I would pull a USA Today and share what I found to be the four primary takeaways from her videos so far in easily digestable form:

  1. Games should show more women capable of strength, agency and power in your game world, instead of being relegated to simply being background props or quest objectives that could be replaced with a sock monkey.
  2. Game designers should be less lazy in reaching for the same, tired stereotypes – or merely xeroxes of male leads – but especially stereotypes showing women as disempowered, and find ways to depict more female characters in more interesting and unique roles.
  3. Game designers should keep in mind that a lot of people (and not just women) have a viscerally negative reactions to scenes showing violence against women (particularly as many have first-hand experience with it), so maybe we shouldn’t just throw these scenes in casually.
  4. Seriously, all the dead, spread-eagled naked women in games are kind of creepy.

So here’s the thing – all four of the above statements are absolutely, 100% true.  As in, its hard to even debate them.

Times which she says that games should be censored or game designers silenced: zero.

Uses of the word misogyny: four.  

1. “[In Red Redemption], Female prostitutes are assaulted and murdered by johns who make a torrent of misogynistic slurs.” (She’s not wrong)

[In GTA3] “The writers wrote the character to annoy the player, so the decision to kill her is the punchline in a deeply misogynistic joke.”  (Also not wrong)

“But the truth is, there’s nothing mature about most of these stories, and many of them cross the line into blatant mysogyny.”  (I’d disagree with this one, but its an entirely subjective opinion)

“…The crude, sensationalized misogyny of Duke Nukem…”  (Again subjective, but much less debatable)

Times which she says game players are sexist or misogynistic: zero.

Use of the term ‘rape culture’ (a term I personally don’t like, because I feel it’s overloaded): zero.

Times which she says that all games are problematic: zero. In fact, she frequently makes it clear that she means the opposite:

“Just to be clear, I’m not saying that all games that use the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist or have no value.”

“This is not to say that women can never die or suffer… To say that women can never die in stories is absurd.  BUt it’s important to consider how women’s death are framed, and to consider why and how they are written.”

Now I’m certainly not arguing that all stories must include completely fearless, hyperindividualistic heroic women who pull themselves up by the bootstraps and never need anything from anyone.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasionally wanting or needing assistance.”

“Now just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the color pink, makeup, bows and high heels, and people of all genders may choose to wear them in the real world, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.”

Can you enjoy games with some of these tropes?  Of course!

But please keep in mind that it’s both possible – and necessary – to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while being critical by its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”

Times which I said “Seriously, did I just fucking watch that?”

This one point caught my eye in particular, about how relegating stories of trauma and sexual abuse to being crappy side quests trivializes one of the greatest crimes and fear that many women have:

“On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize these women in a negative light. However, these narratives are never about the abused women in question. Instead, (they) are flippantly summoned as sideshow attractions for stories about other things altogether.”

This is pretty much the only topic where she phrased things as anything approaching a call to action to developers – we NEED to do something.  (Most of her content merely catalogs and calls attention to content)

“To be clear, I’m not saying stories seriously examining domestic abuse or sexual violence are off-limits to interactive media. However, if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach these topic with the gravity, subtlety and respect they deserve.”

Why she is doing all this?  Because she believes games are important.

“These games don’t exist in a vacuum. They are an increasingly important and influential part of a larger social and cultural ecosystem.”

Again, 100% not wrong about that.  Major games now have global reach and influence, and so do whatever messages they send.  This is, in fact, why working in the games industry is so exciting to me and hundreds of other game developers.  We’re well past moving out of niche and into being everyone’s life.  That doesn’t mean we gotta stop making video game versions of Reservoir Dogs and Lord of the Rings.  But we can vastly broaden our reach.

Now, I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with everything she says, and in some cases, she glosses over or perhaps doesn’t understand very real development issues solving some real narrative problems.  I could write longer analyses about some of these points, and maybe I will, but here’s an overview:

  1. Because most games have one protagonist.  If that protagonist is male, all female characters will by necessity be pushed to less important roles.  And while we should have more female protagonists, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss those with male leads as having failing grades by happenstance.
  2. Most literary theorists believe strongly that ‘save the loved one’ is  more powerful storytelling than ‘save the world’.  When combined with point 1, this means a lot of damsels as the default plot point, particularly in those without family.
  3. Saying that it’s ‘lazy’ that games use violence to fix problems which might include your possessed girlfriend … well, lets say, a simplification.  Games model physical problem solving better than mental, social or emotional problem solving because of the visceral nature of how control works, and how easy it is to create content.  Also, if your game has a core combat main loop, you are a bad designer and deserve no scooby snacks if your boss fights don’t use those mechanics.
  4. Fat Princess looks kind of awesome.

Are these unsolvable issues?  Of course not.  They do take finesse, but the level in Last of Us where you control Ellie is an excellent example of addressing point one in my list above (show empowered women) while sidestepping the first issue in my list of issues.

But here’s the thing: This is all a conversation that’s worth having.  Designers should listen.  We can choose to incorporate that feedback.  We can choose to ignore that feedback.  Hell, a design team can choose to say, “Fuck you” and do the exact opposite of what she wants, just because they can (although, hey, maybe you could not be a complete douchebag about it).  That is completely their right as artists.  But there is no good reason to attempt to squelch what is a valuable and interesting addition to the discussion.  There’s certainly no harm in an artist hearing the message of a critic.  Lord knows the OTHER side of the spectrum is represented on my game forums.

I welcome criticism.  It makes me a better artist.  Because here’s the secret.  Criticism comes with making art, and it comes from all directions, not just feminists.  If your art isn’t being criticized, that only means that your art is culturally irrelevant.

Games Are Really Not Like Cars

As things cool down on the GamerGate morass a little bit, the various press outlets have started to voice their own opinions and declarative statements on where they stand.  As one might expect, there has been a fair amount of tightrope walking in these, and occasionally, a writer falls off the rope and racks himself.  Of these, none are really more befuddling than the Escapist’s take on the whole thing.

Their general stance, as near as I can parse, is “GamerGate is the Publisher’s fault!”  The problem, you see, is that game publishers are trying to make enthusiast games for everyone!  What they should be doing, apparently, is selling Grand Theft Auto for $3000 bucks a box.  That way, devs won’t have to cheapen or weaken the hardcore hooker beating simulation that all true hardcore gamers crave.

I’m employing some hyberbole here, but not as much as you’d think.

[T]he automotive industry does something amazing that the game industry does not: The automotive industry sells a car for every type of consumer….And as a result there is never any conflict between car consumers and car enthusiasts. Why would there be? They have nothing to fight about!

What the hell game industry are you looking at?  We are an industry that produces Call of Duty, Madden, the Sims, Rock Band, Civilization, Candy Crush, Flappy Bird, Katamari Damacy, Farmville and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.   For fuck’s sake, we made a god damned pigeon dating simulator.  The variety of gaming available VASTLY outstrips the variety of ways that Detroit has managed to combine 4 wheels and a motor.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe where the only cars available are sports cars. In this universe, you are a Corvette enthusiast who has driven Corvettes for decades. Mustangs? No way. You’re hardcore for Chevy in the Muscle Car Wars. Then one day, Chevrolet announces that the new 2015 Corvette will have a smaller engine, to make room in the back for a new set of pre-installed child seats. The automotive press lauds the fact that Corvette has become a more inclusive brand which has embraced the family driver. When you, an outraged Corvette fan, begin complaining loudly that this is a betrayal of the Corvette brand… you are criticized for hating children!

Let me give you a better analogy.  Imagine that every single sports car manufactured came standard with a naked woman airbrushed on the hood.  And imagine if a woman said, “You know, you’d probably get more enthusiasts, both male and female, if there was, I dunno, maybe one sports car available that wasn’t tackier than an velvet Elvis painting.  Can we at least, I dunno, airbrush a blouse on her?”  Now imagine that the overwhelming response from an intensely vocal minority was “FUCK YOU!  Airbrushed Bazongas are integral to the artistic vision and internal functionality of a fine automobile!”  Then imagine that said woman had to go into hiding and call FBI for fear of her life while the aforementioned assholes went onto the internet and said that the REAL problem was that auto journalists spent time letting her point of view see print.

But no.  This article is going to treat legitimate critics of the art form as misguided soccer moms determined to destroy everything that is awesome about games.

Nowadays a top game costs as much as $250,000,000, but still sells for about the same inflation-adjusted price as it did when it cost $500,000.

Big game publishers had two ways of responding to this challenging economic trend:

  • Develop different types of products at different price points for different consumers.
  • Make Ferraris and sell them to Honda buyers at Chevrolet prices.
  • Car manufacturers, movie studios, television companies, clothing retailers, and everyone else have chosen the first course of action.

Big game publishers have, until very recently, pursued the second course of action….Fortunately, the big game publishers are beginning to realize that “one game to sell to them all” might be the wrong strategy.

Here’s the thing – using the car analogy is very, very wrong here.  First off, a car enthusiast’s pride is established by one car, maybe two cars.  Only the very rich is going to have multiple Lamborghinis.  By comparison, a gamer’s passion is typically indicated by the wide berth of content he consumes.

Secondly, many games, particularly multiplayer games, require a critical mass of population in order to be able to provide human opponents to players, which requires getting a lot of people in the front door.

Third, unlike the Maserati market, a huge chunk of our enthusiast market’s purchasing decisions are guided strongly by, say, their weekly allowance from their parents.  This is one of the primary reasons why F2P is taking off, and is resulting in all possible price pressure competitively pushing prices down.

A much better analogy for the games enthusiast is the movie enthusiast, as making games is very close to making movies (and nothing like, as asserted here, just like cars).  Sure, there are hundreds of different movies made every year.  For the most part, though, a movie ticket is 8 bucks whether or not you’re seeing a $300 million dollar spectacle like Avatar, or a $1 million dollar indie film.  Wait a couple weeks and both will be at the dollar theater.  A couple months, and both will have DVDs that cost $20 bucks, and be available on-demand for between 4 and 6 bucks.  Half a year later, both will be on Netflix and HBO for no visible charge to the customer.

Hardcore fans of a particular movie may purchase a collector’s edition or some merchandise (just like games), but in most cases, hardcore movie fans are hardcore because they watch a lot of movies (just like games), and instead invest their money in high end theater equipment for an optimal home experience (just like games).  Also, many hardcore movie fans who don’t blink an eye at shelling out a ton of money for a high end HDTV will refuse to actually pay anything for the art that they love, which has the unfortunate quality of being infinitely xeroxable and downloadable off of BitTorrent (need I say it?)

One more similarity: if you spend $300 million dollars making a film that turns out to only have art house appeal, you WILL go out of business, and probably never get to make a film again.  As long as the topic is AAA games with AAA production values, your moneymen are going to demand you make back your investment.  Your choice, if you’ve just shipped Grand Theft Auto, is that you need to sell 10 million copies at $30 bucks revenue apiece just to break even (keep in mind, retailers and distributors get a huge cut of your $60 box), and businesses get sued by their stockholders if they are just in the business of breaking even.

If you decide that you’re only interested in making more hardcore games for only the 100,000 or so REAL HARDCORE game enthusiasts out there, then congrats.  You need to come up with a business model that extracts $3000 from each customer.  In a gaming ecosystem where players can choose to play League of Legends for free.

Now, you might argue that $300M is too much to spend making a video game, and that they should instead make a game for only $30M, or maybe $3M.  At which point, I can only say ‘congratulations, you’re no longer AAA’.  And there are a ton of great games you can download on Steam that had those production costs or less.  But there’s no way you’re getting anywhere near GTA’s content quality of comprehensive feature set.

Right now, you can have your AAA game in any style you’d like, as long as it’s an online-enabled multiplayer game from one of 4 acceptable genres with a T or M rating with cutting-edge graphics and about 10 hours of single player gameplay that costs $60. That’ll change, in time.

Just because only 4 genres dominate the enthusiast press doesn’t mean that the actual, real gaming ecosystem isn’t a lot more vibrant than that.

And we’re even seeing publishers make Ferraris, price them like bicycles, and ask us to pay more for gas to make up the difference. (Those games are called free-to-play MMOs.)

A better analogy would be jeep customization.

And those games will always be closer to World of Warcraft than Candy Crush, more Corvette than Volvo S60, because the former rewards an investment of time and energy in a way the latter simply doesn’t.

“Those games for those other people?  Those aren’t real games.”  I should note again that more than 70% of all people who play Candy Crush have reached max level without spending a cent.  Based on my experience, doing so would take vastly more time and skill than finishing Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4 combined.

Look – I am in no way saying that the central point – that gamers should be taken to mean game enthusiast and should be held as a seperate concept as those who play games -is invalid.  It’s an apt observation.  But the idea that the game companies erred somehow in trying to broaden their appeal to a wider audience in order to actually pay the paychecks of the developers of their AAA titles — that’s quite a leap, one which I can’t seem to make.

But let’s say he’s correct, and that game publishers should focus on making games for an audience only, say, one-fifth in size.  The hardcore one-fifth as opposed to just letting anyone in the turnstile.  Which would be better: for the resulting game to have one-fifth the content and complexity, or to be five times more expensive?

My Review(s) of Call of Duty 4 and Battlefield 4 Single-Player

It’s my own fault, I suppose.

CoD4 and BF4 both came out in Autumn of last year, but in both cases, I deferred my purchase of them to the Winter, in order to have a couple of other games to play on my XBone, therefore attempting to justify my decision to be an early adopter.  As a result, I played the two games’ single-player campaigns back-to-back.  There were two problems with this plan.

1) I believe, as many of my generation does, that the only proper way to play a first person shooter is with a mouse-and-keyboard.  Hell, I’m an athiest, but I’m pretty sure if there’s a God, he would have included ‘thou wilt play FPS games with mouselook’ as the eleventh commandment.  There are some exceptions – I loved Splinter Cell, but that’s a game where if you shoot your gun, you’re likely doing it wrong anyway.

2) I know, I know, gamemakers have a lot to say on the horrors of war, and hoo-rah and all that, but I kind of like it when my games, including my first person shooters, are, you know, FUN.  I vastly preferred the old Doom and Serious Sam mentalities of ‘mow down comical amounts of very silly enemies’ to what has become the de facto standard for shooters nowadays, which is gameplay that is more akin to the shooting gallery at the county fair.  But even the tone helps – I loved Far Cry: Blood Dragon, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to be — you know– FUN.  I was completely able to get into the Bad Company offshoots of Battlefield, largely because they did such a good job making an entertaining band of misfits as your adventuring partners.

By contrast, I pretty much hated both Call of Duty and BF4.  In fact, my favorite part of both games was the loading screen sequences in Call of Duty, which were wonderfully Reznor-on-Acidesque in execution.

Now, I know that these games are really about multiplayer – which is unfortunate, since as an old geezer, I’m going to pretty much refuse to play these on multiplayer.  On a mouse and keyboard, maybe I could hold my own, but I’m pretty sure with a controller, 90% of my time will be spent trying to line up a shot while cursing, and the other 10% of the time will be spent dead.  While still cursing.

So I’m only judging the single-player experience.  Which in both cases, was kind of wretched.

Call of Duty 4′s was so easy and vapid that one hesitates to call it ‘gameplay’.  You simply lurch from shooting gallery to shooting gallery, trivially lining up shots on ineffectual bad guys, then moving to the next set piece.  Most deaths come from world designers being overly cute – spawning a guy behind you.  There was only one mission that I thought was particularly tough – a fight on an oil derrick that seemed to go on forever and that I never could seem to win – but it turns out that it, too, was easy, the mission was just bugged and wouldn’t trigger it’s ending cinematic sequence.

By contrast, BF4 actually had moments that required strategy, planning and tactics, so I guess it gets the nod for actually being a better game.  That being said, a lot of that difficulty comes from the Worldbuilders apparently being allergic to placing save points on levels, and then attempting to lure you into using vehicles halfway through that have all of the durability of a wet paper bag.  Also, their AI is so simplistically psychic that the difficulty is artificially inflated.  There is no sneaking and flanking enemies while your squad holds their fire.  Once shooting starts, all AI will apparently focus on you, which makes most of the gameplay ‘find a corner of the building so that you can edge around it in such a way that only one enemy will have line of sight on you at a time’.  Of particular note, the world is full of rooftop turrets which lure you in, but if you attempt to use them, you will be shredded faster than Richard Nixon’s secret files.

The story in Call of Duty can be charitably described as ‘powerfully stupid’.  Our gigantic space gun is captured by an undetectable small army of astronauts with machine guns that work in space, which results in us being attacked and pretty much conquered by South America.  And by ‘conquered’, I mean that they managed to capture San Diego, but not LA.  But the end result of this is that we have nothing – no army left.  Except for a rag tag group of soldiers including yourself.  And, you know, an aircraft wing.  Also, a column of tanks.  And some high-tech air strike capabilities.  And a dog, who happens to be the single deadliest thing on the whole goddamned battlefield.

Your dad spent his whole life telling you how awesome ‘Ghosts’ were, and coming up with ‘tests’ to prepare you.  These are just described to you – who knows what the hell that means.  Ten years later, he sends you off to rescue a Ghost.  At some point, you are rescued by a Ghost.  Who turns out to be dad.  Surprise!

The bad guy is also a Ghost.  He apparently holds a grudge because dad had the audacity to leave him for dead when, you know, a reservoir was dumped on him.  Yes, in this reality, governments destroy dams and flood their own cities in order to kill 3 special forces units.

In most games, you get angry when it turns out to be only 3 hours long.  With Call of Duty 4, there was instead a sense of palpable relief that I no longer had to endure that so-called ‘narrative’.

Battlefield, by contrast, is a much more believable story, if you can disregard the preposterous level of badassitude that you apparently have compared to the rest of the army.  Entire US military actions are stalled until your 3-man squad come and save the day.  Humorously, every time you leave the battleship your squad calls home, you’ll return to find that it’s been taken, and your squad has to retake it.  And when I say, ‘your squad’, I mean ‘you’, as if you ever put your controller and watch for five minutes, you’ll quickly discover that your squad is about as lethal as a declawed kitten.

Call of Duty has all of the cast diversity of a klan rally.  If you see a woman or a black man, you can rest assured that they’ll die before the end of the mission you’re in.  Even the primary enemy, the former ghost, is white, assuring homogeniety in cutscenes even as you cut down swaths of South Americans in normal combat.

Battlefield 4 is much more diverse, with the second half of the game putting both a black man AND a woman in your squad!  Of course, they hate each other, and spend most of the time reminding each other – and you – that they don’t like or trust each other.  Despite the fact that you are ostensibly squad leader, there is no hotkey for ‘please, you two, shut the fuck up, we’re STEALTHING here’.  But don’t worry, at some point they’ll suddenly have a whiplash-enducing change of heart so sudden that you’ll be somewhat surprised they don’t pull the jeep over and start dry-humping on the spot.

Both games have the beautiful set pieces you’ve come to expect, but I guess I’m no longer impressed by these, especially since both games had the SAME SET PIECES.  Destroyed dam?  Check.  Enduring an attack on an Aircraft Carrier?  Yep.  Call of Duty does get points for having more LUDICROUS set piece fights, so there’s that (I’m talking about you, airplane rescue scene).

Both games also have the mechanic of ‘hit X to do something cool, special-forces-like and scripted’.  Hit X to rappel on the side of the building, hit X to activate the pumps, hit X to play tiddlywinks, you get the idea.  I get what they’re trying to go, I guess, but the net result is a sense that these moments were designed by people who felt like Quick Time Events would be too complicated.  X OR Y?  Fuck that!  Just X!

Both games also have ‘stealth’ missions, and in both cases, they’re impossible to stealth through.  Battlefield, in particular, has a mission where your boss warns you, for the LOVE of GOD, DON’T SHOOT OR KILL ANYONE.  This mission forces you into a gunfight within 60 seconds of starting, and ends with you blowing up a battalion of tanks before you’re allowed to escape.  Somehow, on your return, your commanding officer neglects to admonish you for apparently kickstarting World War III into gear.

Special mention should be given to ‘the fucking Dog level’ in Call of Duty.  Your dog gets shot in the leg, and you get tasked with carrying the dog for the rest of the mission.  Needless to say, you can’t carry a dog and a gun at the same time, so the whole mission is ‘haul the dog 30 feet, put the dog down, and then attempt to kill all the bad guys, rinse, repeat’.  Note that everytime you put the dog down, your teammates will shout at you to pick it up again, despite the fact that there are still bad guys shooting at you, and that your squadmates seem about as effective on their own as a toddler with a potato gun.

Call of Duty’s saving grace, I suppose, is the ending sequence, which is a triumphant climax involving a well-done tank battle and a moderately well-done train chase, which has a fulfilling and satisfying ending – which immediately after the credits, they torpedo in order to set up the inevitable sequel.

Battlefield 4′s ending, by contrast, is utterly befuddling.  Not to give away any spoilers or anything, but the last 60 seconds involve you choosing which one of your squadmates to sacrifice for the greater good, you pressing the button to blow them up, and then the credits rolling.  Try not to think too hard about that final mission, because if you do, you’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that you have no idea how what you did should really resolve anything.

If I had to play one game again, I would beg you to reconsider what you’re doing to me, but if a gun was involved, I would hesitantly reach for Battlefield 4.  There was just more actual fun and interesting challenge there.  Call of Duty’s terrible single-player is well-documented, enough so that Zero Punctuation named it the worst game of 2013, something I considered to be hyperbole at the time and, while I don’t know if I’d go that far, I definitely see how it merits being in that discussion.

Meanwhile, if you want to play a GOOD single-player shooter-like experience on the console, go play Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

SimCity Engineer Describes Tough Technical Effort

One of the things that programmers hate are designers who can kinda sorta code, and then use that to float wildly optimistic estimates for how long it will take to code a new system.  For example, they might say “I can code a minipet system in 3 days!”  And then they do.  And then they claim the programmers who swore it would take 2 months were sandbagging.

Only it’s not a very good minipet system.  The storage is inefficient, the additional pathfinding chokes the server, they somehow break certain boss fights, there’s no GUI for storing or extracting them, they don’t animate when idling, swimming utterly breaks them, etc, etc, etc.

So now the supposed sandbagging engineers inherit this code, which is now considered ‘part of the game’ because a producer somewhere saw it and said ‘make it so’, and now it takes 3 months to do because you have to deal with the horrible, rotten hacked code that made its way into the system, and any content or player data that depends on said horrible hack.

If you’re a designer, don’t be that guy.

All of this comes to mind from reading the SimCity programming lead’s patient explanation that, yes, it took six months to make SimCity run offline, and even though some modder claimed he could do it in two weeks, it turns out that conversion was… a tad incomplete.

This is just a friendly reminder that if you don’t develop games, you really don’t know how hard it is to do so.  And even if you do, something that is trivial in one codebase may be godawful difficult in another.

 

The Evils of Up-front Payment

This is a good article on Gamasutra that challenges the notion that the $60 box price necessarily creates better industry practices.

Sticker Shock

Lost in the noise of the holidays was news that Mechwarriors now sells solid gold mechs – for $500 bucks.  Despite the fact that these appear to be mostly cosmetic only (one coworker said “you’re paying $500 bucks to paint a bullseye on you on the battlefield”), the community was, predictably, completely up in arms about this.  It was, predictably, very similar to the Eve Monocle situation.

Only worse.  People right now are still used to the idea of buying a game fully for $60 bucks.  Whether its right or wrong, the mental math a gamer does when he looks at the Mechwarrior page is that, to buy everything in the game, you would need to spend $4000 bucks at least – to get these eight mechs.

Will people spend that much to play a game?  Certainly.  People have paid $10000 or more for items in video games going back, at least, to Gemstone 3 and Dragonrealms.  In Warhammer, a $400 army is a good start.  Buying all of the cards a la carte to build a competitive standard Magic the Gathering deck is $400 bucks as well – and well more if you get into legacy formats.  Devoted fans of a game will spend on that game if they love it – just as fans of any hobby is want to do.  If you’re a high spender in a video game (a ‘whale’), you don’t mind the spend – and hey, maybe even appreciate it (the ‘I have a porsche’ effect).

The question is all about perception.  I saw a talk given by someone who worked at Eve once, and he said that the Monocle was actually a strong financial success.  Tons of people bought them.  But was it worth the beating they took from their fans?

It really is about that sticker shock.  Magic packs sell for $3-4 bucks, and you can easily get into cheaper formats, such as draft, and avoid the high price tag – at least until you’re sure you like the game enough to invest.  Lucky players can get the cards they need for Standard by opening random packs.  Savvy players can trade for them.  A casual magic player is not going to have a huge price tag slapped in their face – a careful like that Wizards walks, particularly given at the top end, it very much is a ‘pay to win’ game design.

One of the most important things to having a successful F2P business is having a good, healthy relationship with your fans, when it comes to the store.  Those who spend money should feel good about doing so, and those who don’t shouldn’t resent those who do.  This is an incredibly tricky line to walk, but vital, given how important long-term relationships with your players are good not only for your bottom line, but also the communities within your games.  Given the outcry over the $500 mechs, that game’s developers may have crossed that line.

 

 

Assassin’s Creed 4 Design Review: Oh The Random Directions You Will Jump

It’s odd, but the worst part about Assassin’s Creed 4 is the part that theoretically has gotten the most iteration and polish, which is to say the movement model of running, jumping, climbing, and attacking, which is oddly fickle and difficult to control.  I would say that, roughly, 80% of my deaths in this game are from missed jumps, such as attempting to leap from one mainmast to the other, and instead plunging onto the deck beneath my feet, having jumped in an entirely different direction.

This is especially frustrating because most of the game mechanics are quite good.  Killing people is fun, being stealthy is fun (although the lack of crouching seems odd), brute force is fun, shooting your pistols is fun, and exploring the world is fun.

And the life of the pirate is very fun – exceptionally so.  Ship-to-ship combat is a novel and engaging experience, with a very smooth advancement curve that has you picking and choosing fights carefully early on, while charging ahead full-steam into a fleet of Man o Wars later on.  The experience also is an absolutely beautiful treat, complete with waves that wash over the deck of your ship and smoke that lingers in the air post-barrage, barely concealing your enemy.

I’ve talked to a number of people who said that they would love to play the Pirate game without the Assassin game.  I’m not one of those people.  I found that the two experiences complement each other very well – once you get a little tired of one experience, you can jump to the other experience, which helps keep you engaged with the game.

I would, however, love to ditch the Assassin’s Creed story on the next go-round.  I’m not hugely familiar with Assassin’s Creed backstory – before this one, these games were consistently games I’d buy then get not-very-far into – but the narrative in AC4 is a muddled mishmash of gibberish and pseudohistory.  They also throw you into the deep end of the core AC story – including the part where you’re just a modern-day nameless person reliving ancestral memories thanks to high technology – which are utterly mystifying if you’re not well-versed in the series.  The game needs a much better on-ramp to the story.

It could also do with a less despisable protagonist.  The character you play, Edward Kenway, isn’t actually an Assassin, he just happens to kill one in the opening act and then pretends he is one for the rest of the game.  True assassins point this out repeatedly – you’re not one of us!  To be fair, Edward is truly a jerk, with almost every action he takes.  Which again, is pointed out to you repeatedly.  The story gives you little choice but to be a jerk, and then other characters reprimand you for the decisions that the writers made for you!

Raiding fortresses is hugely fun, and I wish the payoff was better.  Kenway’s Fleet is half-realized – it is effective at providing goals for the pirate game, but by the time you’ve got a fleet of Man’o'Wars, you no longer need the cash they provide.  The number of alternate activities available – diving, whaling, etc – is impressive, but don’t really add a whole lot to the game experience.  And I realize they are an effective story delivery mechanism without being cutscenes, but cutting the number of ‘tailing’ missions to be about a third of what they are currently – or alternatively making them less fickle or putting effort in reducing loading times between efforts – would be a very strong step.

Overall, I completed 84% of all goals before I finished the main story.  I’m glad that I played the game, although I really wish that it had been slightly less ambitious in order to have time to polish its problem bits.

Collectibles Design

Extra Credits did a couple of great pieces talking about collectables design, discussing for example how Magic: the Gathering is brilliant and Rage of Bahamut is effectively ‘game design strip mining’ that threatens the public’s faith in F2P at the very core.  Worth a view.

 

More Candy Crush Data

Tommy Palm gave more interesting data about Candy Crush:

  • The game has been downloaded and installed half a billion times.
  • 69% of UK fans play while commuting.
  • 78% of US fans play while watching TV.
  • Level 65 is the biggest cockblock level that forces players to spend.
  • However, 60% of the players who reach level 455 have done so without spending.

“We took the decision at King to make sure that the game can be played from the beginning to the very end without blocking a potential player so they couldn’t progress. It’s a lot about finding a good balance and being generous while at the same time having things that make sense to purchase inside.”

Ender’s Real Genius

ender's real genius